Give it a shot: Strategies for helping your child make a vaccine comfort plan


Getty Images 1294409601

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Not many people are big fans of medical procedures, much less those involving a needle! If your child or teen has expressed fears about needles, they are not alone! In fact, studies tell us that children report needle procedures to be one of the most painful and feared medical experiences. As many parents can attest to, when a child or teen has a fear of needles, a routine vaccination or blood draw can become a significant challenge. Perhaps more importantly, needle fears can also be a big barrier for adults and children in getting the immunizations and vaccinations they need. 

Currently, we are amid the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the best ways we can protect ourselves from getting sick and spreading the virus is by getting vaccinated. Studies show that individuals who receive a COVID-19 vaccine are less likely to contract the virus, less likely to require hospitalization if they do get sick, and less likely to die from COVID-19 complications. Perhaps more so than at any other time in the pandemic, getting fully vaccinated is critical to reducing the significant morbidity and mortality associated with the Delta variant of COVID-19 — a much more contagious and infectious strain of the virus, which now makes up the vast majority of cases. 

Unfortunately, because of Delta, we’ve seen a rise in the number of children being infected with COVID-19, and current rates suggest that approximately 27% of new cases are among children. Youth under the age of 12 do not have the option to be vaccinated at this time; therefore, it is important for those of us who are eligible, to protect them by getting a COVID-19 vaccine. This is particularly important for children 12 and older who may be intermingling with unvaccinated children at school or through other activities, as well as teachers, school staff, and parents. When we all are vaccinated, we help protect those who cannot be vaccinated. Fortunately, there are many strategies to help if fears about needles or possible pain from needles affect your child or teen. Creating a good vaccine comfort and coping plan can be key in helping your child overcome these fears and making a “poke procedure” much more comfortable. Most of us can benefit from having a comfort plan, and pain clinicians and researchers have done lots of work to figure out some of the most effective tips to help. 

To help your child/teen create their own vaccine comfort plan, consider these strategies described below.

  1. Prepare your child for the procedure. It is very important to be honest with your child. Most children/youth respond well with same-day notice to prevent anticipatory anxiety ahead of time. Children should understand how the vaccine will help keep them and others healthy and that it may pinch for just a few seconds. Describing the process may also be helpful (i.e., “They’ll clean your arm with an alcohol wipe first; then they’ll get the vaccine ready, they’ll give you the vaccine, and then we’ll leave and get ice cream.”).
  2. Know what to do
    • Get ready (Develop a Super Coper plan)
      • Is there a favorite/power outfit your child likes and could wear that day?
      • Is there a favorite “pump them up” song to play?
      • Is there a favorite stuffed animal or game they can take with them?
      • Plan what you can do while waiting in the waiting room and exam room to help keep them distracted (i.e., name animals for each letter of the alphabet, identify objects of various colors, play a video game).
    • Keep calm
      • Practice deep, slow breaths to help keep the body calm, and coach this during the vaccine as needed. Keeping your own breath slow and even will also help your child model this calming technique.
      • You can use items like bubbles or pinwheels to encourage slow, even breathing. 
    • Use distraction
      • Verbal games, puzzles, videos and favorite toys can all be used to help your child become focused on a fun activity (rather than the poke)! Using these distractions can help your child lower the volume of discomfort that may be associated with a poke.
      • Bring competing sensation items to help with distraction. An ice pack on another part of the body is sure to get their attention during a vaccine and reduce some of the pain perception, as is eating sour candy or pinching another part of their body at the same time as a poke.
      • You may also consider rubbing numbing creams (that you can ask your physician about beforehand) on their skin before the poke or using a vibration device (e.g., Buzzy).
    • Empower your child
      • Ask your child how they might like to sit, be held or physically comforted during the poke.
      • Avoid allowing your child to be physically restrained or held down during the procedure.
      • Provide appropriate choices (i.e., asking, which arm, whether they want a countdown, if they want to watch or look away).
      • Help your child create a helpful mantra (e.g., “I can do this,” or “I’m brave,” or “This will keep me well”).
      • Model parental confidence in their ability to cope with the procedure (“fake it ‘til you make it,” as needed).
    • Celebrate a job well done!
      • Identify a privilege/reward with your child that he/she can have after the vaccination. This should be something fun and/or motivating to them. Parents, remember to get something for yourself too!

  3. Know what to say. Focus parental talk on praising positive behavior (“I love how calmly you’re sitting,” or “Nice job getting up on the table”) and distracting conversation (i.e., “Tell me about the new video game you’re playing”), even if upset is present.  Avoid reassurances, apologies and criticism as these tend to draw more attention to the poke (“It will be over soon,” or “I know it hurts,” or “Don’t be a baby”). 
  4. Know how to say it. Give a direction instead of asking a question (i.e., “It’s time to sit calmly for a few seconds for the vaccine,” instead of “Are you ready for the vaccine?”).  

There you have it! With vaccines playing such an important part of staying healthy in this pandemic and flu season, needle or vaccination fears don’t have to be a barrier to your child’s well-being. With effective preparation, joint planning, and using these tips from pain researchers and providers, getting a vaccine or other needle procedure can be an empowering experience!