Health & Science

5 ways to calm kids who are afraid of shots

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While many adults might be used to it, kids can have strong reactions to having to get shots. But whether it’s their routine childhood immunizations, Covid-19 or flu shots, or vaccines for international travel, they’re an important part of staying healthy and helping our communities stay healthy!

Kids hate shots so much that many parents start to dread them too! If that’s you, know that there are things you can do to help support your kiddo through this tough but necessary procedure.

From thoughtful preparations beforehand to actual pain-blocking tricks in the moment, there are lots of steps you can take to make vaccinations go more smoothly so that your family can get protected. 

Validate feelings and empathize

If kids are scared or nervous to get vaccinated, don’t just dismiss their feelings by saying, “You’ll be fine, it’s not a big deal.”

Instead, make them feel heard by saying, “I know it can be scary to think about. I go to the doctor to get vaccinated sometimes too, so I know it hurts for a bit.” Then describe what your latest vaccination or blood draw was like.

If possible, you can even bring your kiddo with you while you get vaccinated so they’ll see you go through it with a brave face.

Make a plan in advance

Instead of trying to slip in a mention of the vaccine on the way to the doctor’s office, talk about it a few days before and see if your child has any questions or concerns.

Come up with a plan to make sure they’re as calm and comfortable as can be. Ask if your child wants to:

  • See the needle or be distracted with something else
  • Sit on your lap or squeeze your hand
  • Listen to their favorite song during the shot
  • Take deep breaths together
  • Watch a video
  • Hold a favorite toy 

Just check with the doctor’s office first to see if the items you want to bring are allowed.

Use gentle language, and role play

Use “poke” or “pinch” instead of “shot” to describe what’s going to happen. Use positive language like “It’s your turn to get poked with special medicine to protect you from germs” or “You get to go get your power boost today” instead of “You *have* to get your shot today.”

You can encourage kids to practice at home by giving pretend vaccinations to dolls and stuffed animals. Role-play the entire process at the doctor’s office and have the doll patient say “ouchie” but then feel all better and proud of herself a minute later. Or compare them to their favorite superhero and point out a time when they had to do something really hard or scary in order to get more power or strength.

Learn the reason behind the immunization

Kids are naturally curious, so the more they know about the reason they need to get vaccinated, the more at ease—and possibly even pumped up!—they might feel to receive the shot. If you don’t fully understand the reason behind the vaccine either, you can do some learning together.

Read books together about going to the doctor; many of these stories include vaccinations. And if you look up videos or graphics to browse with kids, make sure you’re using a trusted science-based source such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, a children’s hospital, or a kids’ science show.

Vaccines are designed to slow or stop the spread of a disease in order to protect others in the community (especially those who are sick, elderly, or unable to get the vaccine) from the disease. So your child can feel like a brave hero for a day when they get their shot!

Reduce pain with these tricks

If kids are still terrified of the pain that comes with needles, you can help them trick their bodies into feeling less pain!

Vibration or prickling above the area where the shot is administered can disrupt the pain signals from reaching the brain. Buzzy is a vibrating device specifically designed for use with vaccinations, and Shotblocker is another solution that pokes the surrounding skin to distract your body from the actual needle.

A numbing or cooling spray before a shot can also help reduce the sensation of pain. You can also bring or ask for an ice pack to manage pain afterwards.

Another trick for children under 2 years old is to have them take a sweet sugar solution a minute or two before the vaccination. Sugar can actually help ease the pain!

Ask the pediatrician’s office if they have any of these tools on hand or if you can bring them. Figuring out which of these strategies helps your child the most can be key to easing kids’ fears, and making it easier for parents to keep their families healthy.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.