Helping Your Child Get Over Shot Anxiety

Do's and don’ts for a smoother COVID-19 vaccination or pediatrician visit
child getting immunized

When a child has a fear of needles, heading to an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccination or a well-check visit that involves a shot can quickly devolve into a tearful meltdown.

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How can you make sure your child gets protected from the emerging COVID-19 virus or longer-standing diseases such as measles, chickenpox and tetanus without an additional dose of drama?

As a parent or caretaker, you have an important part to play. What you do before, during and after the appointment can calm their fears ― particularly regarding the COVID-19 vaccine now available to children age 5 and older.

Start by giving your child a heads up about the appointment and what to expect, says pediatric nurse practitioner Katie Creager, CNP: “Explain to them that they’re going to get a vaccine with a needle, and there’s going to be a small pinch, but it’s to keep them healthy.”

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Here is some guidance for your child’s COVID-19 vaccination or doctor’s visit.

7 ways to help your child not fear shots

  1. Be honest. Explain to your child that the vaccine will pinch for a minute, but that it won’t last long, and that it’s going to keep them from getting sick.
  2. Bring a comfort item from home. For toddlers, that might be a teddy bear to hold during the appointment, or a book to look at while they’re getting the shot. For school-aged children, that could be a phone that they can use to play a game or watch a video.
  3. “Practice” beforehand. For younger children, playing with a toy medical kit at home can familiarize them with the tools and gadgets the doctor will use.
  4. Stay calm yourself. It’s tough to see your child in a state of alarm. But studies show that your own anxiety during the appointment can make kids even more nervous. “If parents come off as fearful or uncomfortable, those feelings can relay onto the child,” Creager says.
  5. Hold little ones in your lap. This can be comforting for them.
  6. Try three deep breaths. The anticipation is often worse than the poke itself. If your child is aware of what’s happening and is worried about the pain, have them take three big breaths to relax. The “cough trick” has also been shown to reduce children’s perception of pain during routine immunizations: Have the child cough once as a warm up and then again as the needle pricks.
  7. Slather on the positive praise. Afterward, tell your child what a great job they did. Offer up a reward like a sticker or a stop at the park on the way home for a spin on the tire swing. Help your child create a positive memory associated with that day.

3 behaviors to avoid

  1. Don’t lie. If you know your child will be getting a vaccine, telling them otherwise can compromise the trust between the two of you. Likewise, hold off on the, “It won’t hurt a bit!”
  2. Stay away from scary words. Using harsh words like shot and pain can worsen their fear. Instead, choose words like vaccine and pinch, and remember to emphasize that the reason this is happening is to keep them healthy.
  3. Don’t threaten or scold them. Even if there’s screaming or crying involved, don’t criticize your child. Instead, reassure them that you’re right there with them, and it will be over quickly.

If you’re still not sure how to help your child cope, let your pediatrician or nurse know ahead of time that your child is afraid. Chances are they have some tips and tricks of their own. (They do this all the time, after all.)

Studies show that as many as two-thirds of children demonstrate a fear of needles. But there’s good news: Research also shows that the fear decreases the older kids get.

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So hang in there ― this will be over soon, too.

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