One of the biggest reasons kids don’t like visits to the doctor is injections. There’s no denying that they can be stressful for both child and parent--no mom or dad likes seeing their little one in pain. But with a child having to go through as many as 20 vaccination shots by age 5, could there be ways to make the experience less stressful and painful?
Absolutely, and more parents should know about them, says Christine Chambers, a clinical psychologist and professor whose lab is based at the Centre for Pediatric Pain Research in Nova Scotia, Canada. “There is a whole body of research on children's pain management that people aren't aware of,” she told Shots NPR. To raise awareness, here are some of them and what they say on how you can help your child cope with injections.
1. Be honest. It helps to explain what the shot is for. “Make sure they know that the shot is something that protects them and explain that they're not being punished,” Margaret Fisher, M.D., recent chair of the Section of Infectious Diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics, told Parents.
And, don't tell them that shots don't hurt! Instead, say it will but only for a few seconds. Parents also sometimes resort to not telling their child at all that they’re due for a shot; then to the child’s horror the surprise injection comes at the doctor’s office. By being dishonest, the child will learn to distrust the doctor and the parent, too.
2. Do the prep work. Tell them about the shot, but not too far in advance as this gives them more time to worry, says Chambers. The best time may be on the morning of the doctor’s visit, suggested Rebecca Pillai Riddell, research chair of pain and mental health at Toronto's York University, but it can vary from child to child. You know better how to "condition" him, so to speak. Plus, don’t dwell. Instead, talk about what you’re doing after the shot.
“When they're waking up, getting dressed and eating breakfast, talk about what's coming up. Make it about the next event: 'We're going to go for ice cream afterward.' It helps them focus beyond the vaccination,” she says.
3. Keep calm. How you behave about your child’s injection matters a lot so. Recent research published in the Journal Pain, which was co-authored by Riddell, found that it was the parent’s behavior rather than the actual pain of the shot that increased a child’s anxiety when getting vaccinated. Your child can sense your stress, so calm down.
4. Don’t make a big deal out of it. You don’t have to keep repeating “It’s okay” or “Everything’s fine” either. Studies have shown that too many verbal assurances can cause higher distress so keep them to a minimal. Why? Because if everything truly is fine, there’s no need to point it out, is there? “When things are okay, parents don't go walking down the street reminding kids that things are okay,” says Riddell.
5. Body position and posture matters. Instead of restraining your child, have the doctor or nurse hold your child in a way that’s more like a hug, says Chamber. This help sets the tone of the experience as one that’s not scary or stressful. Have your child sit or stand upright, too. This establishes a sense of control and decreases fear.
6. Utilize tools and tricks. Skin-to-skin contact, breastfeeding, and pacifiers have been shown to work for babies in multiple studies. For children, health professionals recommend giving a child sugar water or any sweet treat before the injection. It’s supposed to provide relief because it increases pleasure that can mask the pain.
For older kids, try the “cough trick.” A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that asking preschoolers and tweens to cough once before the shot and once during helped them cope. Coughing acts as a distraction from the pain.
7. Distract, reassure and move on. Immediately after the shot is given, distract your child with something else. Let your child play with a video game, watch a cartoon or sing a song afterwards, says Chambers. This takes his mind away from the shot, and with any luck, he’ll forget he just had one.
For your part, once the injection is over, tell your child what went well and then move on. Again, there’s no need to dwell and turn injections into a big deal. Because they aren’t, right?