7 Ways to Make Shots Less Scary for Kids

Making sure kids aren’t afraid of needles can help keep them healthy in the long term.

Experts are worried that kids who are afraid of needles may not get recommended vaccines or treatment when they’re older. Getty Images

One of the worst things to witness as a parent is your child in pain. But many of us, along with our pediatricians, dismiss the anxiety and pain that can come with vaccines.

Adults understand that the pain will only last a second, but kids don’t care about that when they’re ridden with panic. As a result, plenty of children grow up with a fear of needles and doctor visits, which can make routine wellness visits an all-out war.

As children age, that unmitigated fear may turn them into adults with phobias, who avoid much-needed vaccines and healthcare altogether.

Not all doctors believe that parents and kids should just muddle through the pain. In fact, several clinics offer programs to reduce or eliminate needle-related pain — a practice that’s having a positive impact on kids and adults.

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Why should trying to lessen or prevent needle pain be a priority? Fear of needles can lead to a decline in vaccination rates, and a lifelong avoidance of proper healthcare.

“We know that there are many immediate and long-term psychological and physical effects of poorly managed pain for needles. Children get scared, don’t want to go to the doctor, and it’s harder for parents to get them there,” said Christine Chambers, PhD, a professor in pediatrics and psychology who studies pediatric pain. “We also know that poorly managed pain early in life can make children’s bodies more vulnerable to pain later on and puts them at risk for developing chronic pain. For all these reasons, both parents and doctors should prioritize pain management.”

“The reality is, we have evidence-based solutions to easily manage needle pain in children of all ages, so it just makes sense to use these strategies in practice,” Chambers added.

The following strategies can help reduce or alleviate pain from vaccine and blood draws.

Numb the skin

Using topical anesthesia to numb the area where the needle will be inserted can significantly lower the amount of pain. Doctors can use lidocaine cream, an over-the-counter product that can be used safely in infants. Applying the cream 30 minutes before a shot or blood draw can reduce or prevent pain all together. To do this, you’ll want to know ahead of time where the doctor plans on “sticking” the child, so you may have to make a call to coordinate it.

Sarah Clark, MPH, co-director of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said calling ahead to inquire about numbing cream — and letting your child know how the cream can help and that you asked for it — can help them feel better.

“Rather than avoid the issue and hope things go okay, this approach allows the parent to acknowledge the child’s anxiety and come up with a plan to address it,” Clark told Healthline.

Give a pacifier or allow breastfeeding

Allowing infants to breastfeed or suck on a pacifier dipped in sugar water during needle insertion is also encouraged and can help alleviate pain.

Don’t restrain the child

Many people who are now adults were pinned down as kids when it was time for shots. This is illegal at Children’s Minnesota, where the “Comfort Promise” aims to prevent or decrease pain with every needle prick. With the right pain control and distraction, kids should rarely need to be held down.

Distract, distract, distract

From blowing bubbles to letting your child play a game on your phone, there are all sorts of distractions that can make getting a shot less anxiety-producing.

Clark agreed that distraction can be helpful, as is engaging the child throughout the process. Good distractions can be singing a song, allowing the child to talk, or encouraging them to cough at the exact time of the shot.

Watch what you say

Parents who tell a child the shot will be over soon, or it won’t hurt much, or it will be “just a little pinch” mean well, but Chambers and Clark say those statements can signal to a child that the parent is anxious — something kids pick up on. Instead, use a distracting statement or talk to your child about coping mechanisms when they get shots.

“The number one thing is for the parent to stay calm,” Clark added. “Many children pick up on their parent’s anxiety, which exacerbates their response.”

Clark said parents can use a reward, such as visiting the park or getting ice cream after the doctor’s visit, and telling the child the reward will be a way to celebrate that the child growing into such a big boy or girl.

Just don’t promise there won’t be a shot because you may not know if the doctor will recommend it, Clark added. “A reasonable option is to simply wonder aloud, ‘Now I’m not sure if today’s visit will have a shot; we’ll just have to wait and see,’” she said.

Act it out

Role-playing before the office visit can be especially useful with kids ages 2 to 5, Clark said. “Whether using a toy medical kit, or reading a book about doing to the doctor, parents can role-play the doctor visit so the child knows what to expect,” Clark said. “An important part — emphasizing the shot only lasts a few seconds.”

You can also use a book or video as a tool to introduce the child to what will happen. Then, when he or she is about to get the prick, you can mention that it’s happening just like it did in the book or video.

Speak up

Chambers said parents should ask their doctors what can be done to manage needle-related pain. Often, that can start a useful dialog or allow physicians to share their tips on what works. “For most kids, strategies like distraction, role-playing, and topical pain relievers will reduce the child’s anxiety. If not, and the child exhibits anxiety in other situations, the parent might want to ask the provider for additional suggestions, or even a referral to a behavioral specialist,” Clark noted.

Say no to needle pain

Chambers said it’s worth the time to prioritize reducing or eliminating needle pain.

“There is a lot parents can do to help prepare children before needles, support them during them, and help focus on what went well after. All of this helps children cope better not only with that needle, but makes the next needle easier too,” Chambers said.