I can't say that I looked forward to my daughter's first vaccinations, even though I knew they were crucial to her health. I'd barely figured out how to pack my diaper bag and unfold the stroller, so the task of getting Lena through her shots was daunting.
Fortunately, we've come a long way since then. In a recent study funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, researchers looked at what methods would increase parental awareness and adoption of pain-relief strategies through hospital prenatal programs at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. They involved parents in creating communications tools, including a pamphlet and video, to educate them on how to reduce babies' vaccination distress.
"We found increased use of pain interventions at future infant vaccinations, knowledge, skills and confidence in parents' abilities to manage infant pain," said Dr. Anna Taddio, professor, Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Toronto, of the study.
The hope is for evidence-based health information for soothing baby during shots will get in the hands of new parents sooner. But if you still have questions, follow this advice to take some of the stress out of your own baby's experience and enlist these ways to soothe baby after her shots that really work.
First, remember that vaccinating your child is one of the best things you can do for him. Vaccinations teach the immune system to fend off life-threatening diseases. The tiny amounts of weakened or inactivated viruses and bacteria (known as antigens) in vaccines trigger the immune system to create antibodies that fight against them. These antibodies are prepared to attack if the body is exposed to those viruses or bacteria again.
"There is no intervention, other than clean water and sanitation, that has saved more lives than childhood immunizations," says Patricia Stinchfield, a pediatric nurse practitioner and director of Infection Prevention and Control for the Children's Immunization Project at the Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in St. Paul.
At his 2-month appointment, you can expect your infant to receive anywhere from three to five needle sticks (depending on whether combination vaccines are used) and a liquid vaccine that together will guard against seven separate diseases. (If he was given a dose of the Hepatitis B vaccine during his 1-month visit, however, he'll have one less injection.)
"It's important to get vaccines on schedule to give your baby the best protection," says Rebecca Pellett Madan, M.D., a pediatric-infectious-disease specialist at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore, in New York City.
RELATED: Your 18-Month Vaccination Schedule
Studies have found that one of the best strategies for reducing the pain of shots is to hold your baby on your lap (rather than having her lie on the examination table) and let her nurse, drink a bottle, or suck on a pacifier dipped in a sugar-water solution.
"Physical comfort, sweet taste, and sucking reduce pain in young children," says Anna Taddio, Ph.D., professor of pharmacy at the University of Toronto, who researches pain reduction during vaccinations. While other strategies include distracting your baby with a favorite toy or a song to help alleviate pain, they're not as effective as the combo of cuddling and feeding or sucking.
Here are more tactics for easing baby's pain:
If your baby seems to be highly sensitive to pain during her shots, ask your pediatrician about a prescription topical anesthetic for next time. The cream can be put on the skin about an hour before an injection to desensitize the area. "The impact of repeated pain during injections can lead even healthy babies to develop a fear of doctors and needles," says Dr. Taddio. Proactive pain control can go a long way toward preventing medical phobias later on.
"If you're anxious, infants pick up on that and they tend to get worried too," says Roy Benaroch, M.D., assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Emory University, in Atlanta. "Try to be calm, matter-of-fact, and loving, but not overly apologetic."
"Often, babies are soothed so quickly by feeding that they stop crying before they even leave the exam room," explains Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., community pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital.
If your little one is inconsolable and seems to be in pain after her vaccinations, go ahead and give her a dose of acetaminophen (try infant Tylenol). However, don't give it to your baby beforehand in an effort to head off her agony. "There's no evidence that 'preventive' painkillers work, and at least one study found that giving a baby acetaminophen before she receives a routine vaccine shot may weaken her immune reaction," Dr. Benaroch explains.
Apply deep pressure to your baby's leg immediately following the injection to dull the pain from both the superficial poke to the skin and the vaccine entering the muscle, Dr. Swanson recommends.
Give your baby a couple of drops of table sugar and water immediately afterwards. "It's been shown to decrease the pain of injections in infants," Dr. Benaroch says. "We think that sugar works by releasing endorphins, which are natural painkillers."
While it's rare for a baby to have a serious adverse side effect, if he's crying inconsolably for more than three hours or develops a high fever, seizures, swelling of the face, or limpness, get immediate medical help. It's common, though, for a baby to experience a minor reaction such as redness at the injection site, a mild fever, fussiness, or a slight loss of appetite.
"These are actually encouraging signs that the immune response is working," Stinchfield says.