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How To Help Your Kid Deal With Their Fear Of Needles

When your kid is scared of needles, routine visits to the pediatrician can be stressful for parents and children alike.

If your child gets anxious in these situations, take solace in knowing they’re not alone. A 2019 meta-analysis of studies on the topic found that the majority of young kids are afraid of needles.

That fear may range from mild uneasiness to full-on panic. Most of the time, these feelings can be managed with simple tools and support from caregivers. However, if your child experiences extreme anxiety around vaccinations, then working with a professional — such as a pediatric behavioral health therapist — can be a great resource.

Reducing shot anxiety is important for your child’s own well-being, but it may have larger public health implications, too. Researchers have found a link between needle phobia and COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. So allaying these fears early on could be “one pathway to long-term vaccine acceptance,” Dr. Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in Overland Park, Kansas, wrote in her newsletter.

We asked medical professionals to share their advice on how to support a child who’s scared of needles. Here’s what what they told us:

Don’t call them “shots,” for starters.

Words like “shots,” “ouchies” or “pokes” all have negative connotations that imply pain. Instead, call them immunizations, vaccines or medicine, “as this makes it more medical and drives home that we are doing this for their health and to protect them,” pediatrician Tia Ragland Medley — medical director of MedStar Franklin Square Pediatrics in Baltimore — told HuffPost.

Play doctor at home to practice.

Have your child give pretend shots to their dolls, stuffed animals or to you while you’re at home in a comfortable, low-stress environment. Or you can try reading them children’s books on the subject to help prep them for the appointment.

“My daughter has a ‘doctor’s kit’ that includes a syringe with a needle. When she gives me ‘shots,’ I always respond with, ‘Oh, wow, thank you! I feel so much better now,” and I repeat this phrase when she gets her own vaccines,” Karen L. Gentile, a pediatric nurse practitioner at National Jewish Health in Denver, told HuffPost. “I never respond with ‘ouch’ or fake crying because that sends the message that she should respond the same way.”

Validate their feelings.

Avoid minimizing their fears by saying things like “It’s not that bad,” “Just suck it up” or “Don’t worry,” all of which can make kids feels unheard, Medley said.

Instead of telling your child they’re fine, say something like: “I know you are scared, and that’s OK because sometimes I am scared, too. But I’ll be right here with you to comfort you,” Gentile said.

Similarly, you may be inclined to comfort your child by telling them that shots don’t hurt. Burgert recommends being honest but not alarmist in your approach: “Getting a shot can hurt a little, but it’s helping your body get stronger. Any pain you feel will go away quickly.”

You don’t need to apologize.

Saying “sorry” when your kid has to get a vaccine seems like the compassionate thing to do, but it sends the wrong message.

“Apologies occur after we do something wrong, but taking steps to protect your child’s health is not wrong,” Medley said.

Providing excessive reassurance and empathy can actually make things worse in this situation, Burgert said

“When parents talk too much about the shots, kids get more worried and fearful than if fewer words were spoken,” she wrote in her newsletter. “So, keep it short and sweet. When shots are discussed, use honest language, keep explanations brief, stay calm, keep a matter-of-fact attitude, and don’t project a personal concern about discomfort onto the kids.”

Medley also advises parents to avoid calling the nurse or whoever is administering the shot “that mean lady” or casting this person in a negative light.

“We also don’t blame others or use mean names for people who are trying to help us,” Medley added.

Bring some of your kid’s favorite things to the appointment.

Bringing along a beloved item like a toy, stuffed animal or blanket can provide a nice dose of comfort.

“They can hug their toy, turn away from the needle and read their book or watch their favorite TV show or music video,” Medley said.

Screen time and music can also be good distractions for older kids. You might also try having a conversation with them or doing some deep breathing exercises.

Try to keep yourself calm, too.

Kids will look to their caregivers to figure out how to respond to a situation. If you’re able to stay calm, cool and collected, that mellow energy will rub off on them, too.

“Manage your own anxiety,” Gentile said. “Children model our behavior and are reactive to our behavior. If you yourself are extremely anxious, consider stepping out of the room and letting another family member stay with the child. Keep your outward appearance calm and serene so that your child also remains calm.”

Comfort them.

Ask your child if they want to hold your hand or perhaps sit on your lap while the vaccine is administered. Or they may prefer to sit by themself and have you stand nearby.

Gentile encourages parents to cheer, clap and offer hugs to make the experience a more positive one.

Use the tools and tricks at your disposal.

There are a number of items you can purchase to help reduce vaccine discomfort. Your pediatrician’s office may even have some on hand, so it’s worth asking.

Ice packs and sprays provide a cooling or numbing sensation, and vibrating devices disrupt pain signals to the brain, Gentile said.

Burgert is a fan of the “cough trick.”

“For tweens and teens, ask for a moderately hard cough as a ‘warm-up,’ followed by another cough as the needle is inserted,” she explained in her newsletter. “My patients are always surprised by how much this simple trick helps decrease pain.”

Another thing to consider: Asking the doctor if you can do the shots at the beginning of the visit rather than at the end. That way you get the hard part over with first.

Reward them afterwards.

Give your child something fun to look forward to after the appointment is over.

Medley recommends things like stickers, age-appropriate small toys, extra playtime or a trip to the park.

“After-vaccine rewards are great at helping the child focus on the reward instead of the vaccine,” she said.

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