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Helping Kids Who Fear Vaccines

How to soothe your child when it's vaccination time.
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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.

"Saying that shots don't hurt is not a good idea, because shots do hurt, although the amount of pain varies from child to child," says Howard Bennett, MD, author of Lions Aren't Scared of Shots, a picture book to help children feel less anxious about getting vaccinated and a professor of pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine. "A better response is something like, 'It may hurt, but I'll be here with you, and if it does hurt, the pain will only last a little while.'"

Practicing at home helps remind Kira Storch's 3- and 5-year-old sons that shots aren't pain-free. "I say that getting a shot is like getting a pinch on the arm, then I give a light pinch and ask how it felt," says San Francisco resident Storch, whose boys don't cry at the doctor's office. "Five minutes later, I ask how their arm feels, reminding them about the pinch and saying that a shot will be the same."

 

Try role-playing.

Eliminate the element of surprise by teaching your child what to expect at his appointment.

"At home, parents can read books to their kids about visiting the doctor and encourage them to play doctor," Bennett says. "Sometimes kids who bring stuffed animals to appointments like giving them pretend shots before the doctor gives one to them."         

Having a doctor kit on hand helps ease anxiety for the 2- and 4-year-old sons of Sara Sutton Fell of Boulder, Colo. "We play with doctor equipment at home, including a routine of what happens when we go to the doctor's," she says. "And we talk about how everyone has to get shots sometimes, even Mommy and Daddy, because even though they hurt for a quick minute, they can help make us healthier."

Call attention to something else.

When a shot is imminent, distraction may be your best ally. It's been shown to reduce pain and anxiety associated with needles, Uman's research shows.

How you distract your child should depend on her age.

"Babies and toddlers can be distracted with singing, stories, or playing with a small toy," Bennett says. "Older children respond well to watching videos or listening to stories or music. Parents can also use cell phones to show movies or photographs to their kids during painful procedures."

Get creative.

If one shot per doctor's visit is all that your anxious child can endure, consider the following options.

  • Most children aged 2 and older can get FluMist, a safe, effective, painless nasal spray given annually that's an alternative to an annual flu shot. (One less pinch per year.)
  • Some doctor's offices offer synchronized vaccinations. "If a child needs two shots at the same visit, two nurses give the shots simultaneously, which reduces the anxiety of waiting for the second shot," Bennett says. "There's no reason why parents can't ask for this, if the doctor has enough staff on hand to accommodate the technique."
  • For some children, making an additional trip to the doctor for a second vaccination helps. "We only do one at a time," says Michael Owens of Falls Church, Va., whose 3-year-old daughter rarely cries from shots. "When it's necessary to schedule an extra appointment to get in a required shot, her comfort was well worth the extra $20 copay."
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