While the COVID-19 vaccine is now widely available for kids ages 6 months and older, we know that some children might be nervous about taking shots in general.
They might be scared of needles or not sure how they’ll feel after taking the shot. What’s important is for parents and caregivers to comfort them every step of the way. Here are a few expert tips to help you ease your shot-hesitant kids.
Note: To see where vaccines are available for your child, you can reach out to your doctor, local pharmacy or visit vaccines.gov.
Dr. Nina Alfieri, a general pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital, recommends honest communication about the shot and the potential pain. Be careful with framing it as a punishment, she says.
“We don’t want to say things like, ‘If you don’t sit still, you’re going to need a shot.’ Those things put a negative spin on shots in kids’ minds,” Alfieri says. “We as pediatricians would never do anything — and parents also would never do anything — to hurt a kid as a punishment. This is just confusing messaging.”
And with a majority of children and 20-30% of adults fearing needles, doctors say it’s vital for parents to have open conversations while also validating the anxiety surrounding the prick.
Evanston pediatrician Dr. Andy Bernstein recommends teaching children the importance of vaccinations, such as protecting their fellow peers at school or their grandparents.
Talking about the reasons to face the dreaded needle should also be done in an age-appropriate way.
“A 5-year-old can still understand it’s better to prevent serious illness than to hope you do OK,” Bernstein notes. “Maybe talking less about hospitalization rates but more about just caring for ourselves and other people around us.”
And if you’re shot-hesitant, be honest about that, too. Ignoring a child’s fears about getting jabbed can lead to a more negative experience, according to Alfieri.
Explaining the vaccine to those who are hesitant “feels like a win,” Bernstein says.
“I like to be able to take the time and explain what is wrong about the things maybe they’ve heard on Facebook or on TikTok,” Bernstein says.
Comfort and distract
For younger children, hugging or holding them as they get jabbed can decrease their stress and pain levels, Alfieri notes.
Other methods such as playing with toys, numbing sprays, the coughing method — practicing small coughs before and making a big cough during the shot — or vibrating the arm or thigh can decrease pain. Even playing YouTube videos to distract them can help.
“Yes, we totally encourage media in certain situations,” Alfieri says.
Make it a celebration
“You may start with something as simple as, ‘This is really exciting. Today, we’re going to get a shot, it will help keep you safe and healthy. It might hurt a little bit, but I’m going to be here for you the whole time,’” Alfieri says.
Promising and fulfilling benefits, such as more playdates or family barbecues, can incentivize children to get immunized. Alfieri tags an asterisk to this advice, though. Parents shouldn’t over-promise but instead offer more immediate guarantees, like ice cream or a trip to the park after leaving the doctor’s office.
Choose what’s best for your child
Combination vaccines, which Alfieri says are safe and well-researched, is another route for shot-wary children to “decrease the number of pokes.”
Post-shot methods include ice packs, warm compresses, massages and medicine like Tylenol or Ibuprofen.
And while it’s not the same procedure as a shot, Bernstein says it’s common to hear kids screaming at his practice for throat swabs. If a child wants to yell during the shot, he notes, “And it makes the shot go better, I would encourage them to yell as loud as they want. No question.”
This post was originally published in Sept. 2020 and is updated regularly.
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