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How to Help Your Child Through Their Vaccinations

little boy receiving a vaccine

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that how parents talk to their chid immediately after a vaccination can affect their distress levels.
  • Physical strategies such as hugging, cuddling, or hand-holding may be more effective than saying things like, "it will be over soon."
  • Calming your child down before the vaccination can also help reduce their stress and anxiety after the shot.

With COVID-19 vaccination approval looking likely for kids under 12 by midwinter, you may be thinking ahead to that moment in the doctor’s office when your little one looks to you for comfort and reassurance. 

The findings of a new study, published in the journal PAIN, may help to minimize post-vaccination distress in young kids. The research involved children who were at least four years old, and is part of the OUCH Cohort, the largest study in the world looking at caregivers and children during vaccinations from birth to age five. 

Study Findings

The researchers found that the first minute post-vaccination was crucial. And while parents who said “coping-promoting” statements, like “you can do this” and “it will be over soon” meant well, this approach actually caused more distress. The same happened with attempts to distract the child by talking about something else. 

However, during the second minute after the vaccine, by which time the child was calmer, those coping-promoting statements did help to calm them down. 

The study also found that preschoolers who were more distressed before getting their shot were also more distressed after the vaccination. 

How Can Parents Help During Vaccinations?

Based on their findings, the researchers recommend keeping kids calm with physical strategies such as hugging, cuddling, or hand-holding, before using coping statements in the second minute after the shot. 

Of course, the reality is that every child is different, and the same goes for their parents. 

“I try to assess each parent's comfort level with watching their child get an injection before I give the vaccine,” says Karen Memari, RN, a pediatric nurse who works with Private Medical in New York. This might mean asking the parent directly whether they want to participate, or the parent might say they don’t want to be present. 

“Some parents happy to be there, while others find it distressing to watch their children get vaccinated,” Memari explains. If the parent wants to participate, she usually directs them to hold their child in a way that gives her access to the injection site, helps keep them still, but also gives the child physical comfort.

Karen Memari, RN

In my experience, many babies and children will cry for a few minutes (a totally natural reaction), and then go back to being their happy playful selves very shortly thereafter.

— Karen Memari, RN

And in Memari’s experience, distraction techniques can work. “Reading a book, playing a favorite song, or watching a favorite video on their phones or tablets can help the child to focus on something other than the injection, she explains. 

If your child is distressed in the immediate aftermath of the injection, Memari has some reassuring words. “The great thing about children, and one of the many reasons why I love being a pediatric nurse, is that they really do forgive and forget rather quickly!” she says “In my experience, many babies and children will cry for a few minutes (a totally natural reaction), and then go back to being their happy playful selves very shortly thereafter.”

Age is also a factor, says pediatrician Jessica Madden, MD, IBCLC, medical director at Aeroflow Breastpumps. “If children are preschool-aged or older, explaining in advance why people need to get vaccines can go a long way,” she says. “Most kids who are 3 years old and up should be able to understand the basic concept of what ‘germs’ are and that getting vaccines helps to prevent germs from making people sick.”

What This Means For You

Nobody expects you to look forward to taking your young child for a vaccination, but preparing beforehand can make it easier for both of you.

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) has a comprehensive list of resources for teaching children and teenagers about vaccines on their website, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers helpful tips about vaccines for parents, including how to help parents deal with kids’ vaccine-associated pain and anxiety. 

Above all, remember that it’s a normal part of toddler development to protest and throw tantrums, so don’t be surprised if none of these strategies work for your little one. “Pediatricians and staff are very used to babies and toddlers crying and screaming before, during, and after vaccines, and will often enlist help from parents in helping to hold and comfort their kids during the process,” says Dr. Madden. 

She also reminds parents of the importance of accepting their child’s emotions and allowing them to simply feel how they are feeling. “If your child is still scared and/or crying after they get their shots, comfort them, let them know it’s okay to feel how they are feeling, and also congratulate them for how brave they have been,” she says. “Sometimes, a simple reward such as being able to pick out a special colored band aid, sticker, and/or a treat or toy from a ‘reward’ box can go a long way toward helping kids cope with any post-vaccine stress and anxiety.”

You'll never go wrong with hugs and physical comfort, says pediatrician Florencia Segura, MD, FAAP. "Helping your child to take deep breaths to help 'blow out; the pain can give them something to do if they are a little frightened," she adds. "Emphasizing their bravery is also important."

And if all else fails, there’s no harm in resorting to a little bribery. “I still take my kids out for ice cream every fall after we are finished at our local pediatric flu shot clinic, and I have no qualms about doing this!” Dr. Madden reveals. 

Dr. Segura agrees. "A treat afterward can be useful motivation," she says. "If your child has something fun to look forward to afterward, they will most likely leave the appointment with a big smile."

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  1. Shiff I et al. Trajectories of Distress Regulation During Preschool Vaccinations Child and Caregiver Predictors. PAIN. 2021 July. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002399