7 Tips to Help Kids Overcome a Fear of Needle Shots

Is your child scared of getting shots? Here's how to reduce their anxiety before your next visit to the doctor's office.

boy getting a vaccine
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01 of 08
Vaccine or flu shot in injection needle. Doctor working with patient's arm. Physician or nurse giving vaccination and immunity to virus, influenza or HPV with syringe.
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Needle vaccinations help protect kids against various illnesses, but they sure do hurt. It's no wonder most children are scared of shots—and it doesn't help that they have to get them so often. In fact, many little ones rack up more than 20 vaccinations by the time they're 4 years old. Here are seven tips to help make the next doctor's visit a little smoother.

02 of 08

Tell the Truth

mother talking to child

If a child asks whether they're getting shots, don't brush them off or deny it. "Make sure they know that the shot is something that protects them and explain that they're not being punished," says Margaret Fisher, M.D., recent chair of the Section of Infectious Diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Also, don't say the shot won't hurt because kids will learn you're lying and you can lose their trust. Instead, answer simply and honestly, saying, "Yes, it'll hurt, but just for a few seconds." When it's over, make sure to show them a happy, smiling face to let them know they're all done.

03 of 08

Don't Reveal Too Much

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Don't give your child too many details prior to the office visit. "If you tell kids too much too soon, you'll ruin their entire week and they'll worry up until the day of the appointment," explains Ari Brown, M.D., a Parents advisor and author of Baby 411. Instead, don't mention the shot at all unless they ask. If they do, and you know they won't be getting a shot, of course you should tell them so.

However, if you don't know, you can say, "It's possible you may need one today, but I'm not sure if you do," suggests Dr. Brown. "Being vague usually works just fine—when I tell kids I have to check the chart to see if they're getting a shot, I usually get a sigh of relief." If you talk about the shots too much, you'll likely make your child more anxious for the doctor's appointment, and their concerns can escalate to the point where they're terrified all the way up to the visit.

04 of 08

Prevent the Physical Pain

tween girl getting vaccine shot

Some experts suggest applying an anesthetic cream about 20 minutes before the shot, which can help numb the skin. Ask your doctor which brand they recommend. During the vaccination, help distract your child by squeezing their hand, making funny faces, telling a joke or story, playing I Spy, or simply singing their favorite song.

05 of 08

Know When to Let Go

toddler getting MMR vaccine
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If your child is in hysterics, it's often best to step back and allow the nurse or doctor to take over, advises Dr. Brown. Kids overreact to shots sometimes, knowing they'll get a response from their parents (which may lead to you refusing to go through with the shot).

If your kid is throwing a tantrum, consider leaving the room briefly so the staff can do their job. Or try standing in the corner of the room and maintaining eye contact with your child, which provides support without getting in the way. Doing so can help speed up the whole process and minimize the painful experience for everyone involved.

06 of 08

Provide Immediate Relief

Little girl getting a vaccine with her mom

After a vaccination, have your child remain seated or rest in your lap for a few minutes to make sure they don't get light-headed or dizzy too fast (this can happen if someone stands up too quickly, especially after a stressful event). Then rub the injection site if it's sore and decrease any swelling by applying an ice pack for about 10 minutes. Although many doctors don't recommend giving kids painkillers before the shot because it might interfere with the vaccine's effectiveness, some suggest offering Children's Motrin or Tylenol afterward if they're complaining of pain. Always consult the pediatrician to see what's recommended for your child.

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Consider a Reward

boy with bandaid at dr with mom
Alexandra Grablewski

Sometimes even a small incentive (like a lollipop or a sticker) can help ease the pain. A special treat gives your child something to look forward to while also acknowledging their bravery and boo-boo in a positive way. Or promise your child that after their vaccinations, you'll do something special together, like going bowling or getting an ice cream cone.

08 of 08

Watch for Possible Side Effects

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When your child receives a vaccination, ask the nurse or doctor for a list of reactions or side effects that might occur. Common mild and moderate reactions may include swelling, tenderness, fever, headaches, and even crankiness and fatigue. If your child seems to be experiencing one of the rare but serious side effects—such as an allergic reaction, a seizure, reduced consciousness, or difficulty breathing—call 911 immediately.

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