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Helping Kids Who Fear Vaccines

How to soothe your child when it's vaccination time.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD

When your young child whimpers at the mention of the word "shot," you probably have mixed feelings. You want your son to be protected by his vaccinations; you just wish that the procedure was pain-free.

"Vaccines protect the health and well-being of children, but children don't understand that," says Deborah Wexler, MD, executive director of the Immunization Action Coalition, a national organization based in St. Paul, Minn. "It can be really hard for them to come in for their shots."

Did You Know?

Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will provide free preventive care services, including checkups, vaccinations and screening tests, to children and teens. Learn more.

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Fortunately, you can have an active role in changing your child's attitude. What a parent says and does before, during, and after the doctor's appointment can help to calm a child, reduce her fears, and ensure that she develops a healthy attitude toward seeing the pediatrician.

If you struggle with what to say or have trouble putting on a brave face, read on for expert advice.

Stay on schedule.

The American Academy of Pediatrics' immunization schedule recommends that children get the bulk of their vaccines before age 2.

Babies won't remember the pain from a previous visit, but toddlers and preschoolers who need catch-up vaccinations may associate the doctor's office with being poked and prodded.

"Don't delay those infant vaccines until they're over 1," Wexler says. "The older they are, the harder they are to vaccinate, because they remember the last appointment."


Your attitude and appearance is more important than you may realize, because young children take cues from their parents. If you grimace or tense up, your child may become anxious, too.

"Parental behavior during vaccinations has been shown repeatedly to be a key factor in determining the amount of pain and anxiety a child will experience," says pediatric needle pain researcher Lindsay Uman, PhD, a clinical psychologist at IWK Health Centre in Canada's Halifax, Nova Scotia.

"Interestingly, many studies show that parental reassurance (saying "It's OK' or 'Don't worry') is likely to increase a child's distress, [possibly because] it tells the child there's something to worry about," Uman says.

Be honest.

Have you ever fibbed and said there would be no jab at a flu shot appointment or promised that the needle prick wouldn't hurt a bit? The truth may cause some worry, but lying means that your child can't trust what you say, which sets a bad precedent.

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