Between standard vaccines and an annual flu shot, children get many shots throughout their early lives. At some point, it's likely that every child will experience some degree of fear or anxiety about getting poked. According to a 2018 survey, half of 2- to 5-year-olds are afraid of visiting the doctor, and 1 in 25 parents have delayed or canceled a vaccination visit because of their child's fear.
As difficult as it can be to calm an anxious child – or stay calm yourself – vaccines play a critical role in protecting children from serious illnesses. Knowing that a shot will only take a minute provides some comfort, but how can you reassure your child for the hours before or after?
Preeti Sharma, M.D., pediatric pulmonologist at Children's Heath℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, shares some tried and true tips for helping your child overcome a fear of shots.
1. Explain the benefits.
Depending on your child's age, you can explain what the vaccination is for and why it is important for their health. "Remind kids that this will keep them healthy and strong and help prevent them from getting sick," says Dr. Sharma. "With my own kids, we talk about that while the shot may be uncomfortable for a minute, an illness like the flu makes you feel bad for much longer." Understanding its importance can make an annual shot an expectation and positive choice rather than something to dread.
2. Plan a reward.
Associating getting a shot with a special treat can be a good way to ease anxiety, because it gives your child something to look forward to. They may even become more focused on what they are doing after their appointment instead of the appointment itself. "We make a plan in advance," says Dr. Sharma. "We schedule an activity for after the shots, like having a picnic or going to see a movie. By the time the fun is over, often the discomfort of the shot is forgotten."
3. Distract from pain.
Anticipation of a shot is often more painful than the actual prick. Try some techniques to distract your child. Offer to hold their hand, ask them to think about their favorite toy or family pet, tell them a joke or sing to them. Try giving them a task like blowing air at your face on the count of three when it's shot time. If needed, you can also ask your child's doctor about any pain-relieving options. "Children can be comforted by using ice or numbing creams before shots, but individual doctor's offices have different preferences," says Dr. Sharma.
4. Be a role model.
"It really helps to make vaccines an expectation," says Dr. Sharma. "My kids know that every fall, the whole family gets a flu shot." If you get a shot yourself, your child will start to recognize that this is a normal occurrence and there is nothing to be afraid of. Chances are if your child sees you being brave, they will follow.
5. Provide positive reinforcement.
Having a positive attitude while your child is receiving a shot is very important. Try smiling at them and have relaxed body language. They want to know that you are there for them. If you remain calm, your child is more likely to do the same. "Positive reinforcement goes a long way in making it a better experience," says Dr. Sharma. "For example, saying 'You did a great job' or 'Look at how strong you are' can make your child feel better almost instantly."
Vaccine anxiety varies with each child, and what works one year might change the next. However, we hope these tips make your next doctor's visit a more positive one as you take steps to keep your child healthy.
Vaccines protect children from getting sick from many crippling or deadly illnesses. Get the facts about vaccines and download current immunization schedules.
Stay current on the health insights that make a difference to your children. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more tips sent directly to your inbox.