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Parental Comfort Helps Children Cope With Shots

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Cortisol levels were also lower in the infants whose parents had received the instructions. After getting the shots, these infants got over being upset more quickly than the other babies, and their parents rated them as more comfortable.

Having a parent or other loved one present may be the best psychological treatment when a child is anticipating a painful event, says Patrick John McGrath, MD. "Children feel more secure with their parents there," says McGrath, who is with the psychology department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and has written journal articles on helping children and parents cope with pain.

The Michigan researchers found that the parents who had received instructions were more likely to use comforting techniques and made positive or neutral comments before immunization, resulting in less distress for their infants. The researchers did not tell parents to use any single method, Felt says, but instead provided a list of suggestions and observed the parents' choices on videotape later. "Perhaps that allowed parents to individualize their intervention -- to use what they know about what might aid their children at the procedure," Felt says.

Overall, humorous comments and other statements not related to the immunization helped children cope, even those as young as 6 months. But comments that sounded like reassurance, as well as bargaining and explanations, seemed to increase distress. "One parent said, 'I know this is going to hurt.' That didn't help the child at all," Felt says.

Although many of the children in this study were very young, McGrath says he believes honesty is the best policy for those who are old enough to understand what's really going on. "Children need simple, accurate information about what is going to happen," he says. "Lies and threats teach children to distrust and be fearful."

McGrath says parents should tell the child what will happen and what it will feel like. "Explain things slowly, in small bits, and repeat as often as needed. Dolls, puppets, or drawings can be used to explain procedures. Children can also express how they feel using these methods."

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