How To Handle Your Baby's First Shots

Make your little one's first vaccinations as pain-free as possible—for both of you.

We know it probably hurts you too to watch your little one squeal at the doctor's office. So here's five tips to make vaccinations easier on your baby.

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, I'd learned ways to help keep her calm that actually worked. Follow this advice to take some of the stress out of your own baby's experience.

Immunization Basics

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.

Though there has been plenty of public controversy surrounding vaccinations recently, medical experts stand behind their safety and efficacy. Vaccinations have radically reduced hospitalizations and deaths from infectious diseases. (Last winter's measles outbreak at Disneyland was a reminder of the crucial role shots play.) Many diseases that were once rampant, such as polio, have been eliminated in the U.S. "The benefits far outweigh the risks," says Stinchfield.

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.

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Easing the Sting

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.

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.

Smart Aftercare

Once the shots are finished, give your baby lots of TLC. The injection site may be tender, so try a warm bath to help ease the soreness. 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. Giving him acetaminophen after the shots is fine, but experts don't recommend giving him a fever reducer beforehand, because some research suggests that it could interfere with his immune response to the vaccine. And don't forget to ask your pediatrician for a copy of your baby's full vaccination records so you can keep track of all his shots.

Originally published in the July 2015 issue of Parents magazine.

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