Back-to-school time means a focus on children’s immunizations ahead of flu season — but the prospect of shots can be scary and anxiety-inducing for many kids.
Some two in three children have strong fears around needles, according to CDC data.
Evelyn Chan, pediatrician and CEO of Smileyscope in California, said preparing a child ahead of a vaccination or blood draw appointment can help alleviate anxiety and make the experience smoother.
She shared her top tips with Fox News Digital.
Steps to prepare kids for shots
The first step is to explain the procedure.
"Talk to your child in advance about what to expect during a vaccination or blood draw," Chan said. "Use age-appropriate language to describe the process, emphasizing that it is a quick procedure to check their health."
Next, Chan said to distract and relax the child.
She recommended engaging kids in activities to pull their focus away from the needle.
"This can include reading books, playing games or listening to music," she said. "Deep breathing exercises or other relaxation techniques can also help reduce anxiety."
During the process itself, be sure to offer positive reinforcement, encouragement and praise, Chan suggested.
"Talk about the procedure positively — for example, remind them that it is an important step in keeping them healthy."
Partnering with your child’s health care team is also key to reducing stress and anxiety.
"Doctors’ offices work with kids every day on blood draws and needle procedures," Chan said.
"Many offices are equipped with techniques and even technology that may help alleviate a child's anxiety, such as medical virtual reality devices."
The ‘3 Ps’ to minimize pain
During the actual shot or blood draw, Chan uses the following pain-minimizing tips, which she calls the "3 Ps":
- Physical numbing: Chan recommends consulting with the health care provider beforehand to see if using a numbing cream or a cold pack is suitable. "These can help numb the area before a vaccination or blood draw, reducing pain," she said.
- Positioning: Talk with your health care provider about having your child in a comfortable and safe position during a vaccination or blood draw, the doctor said. "This includes sitting upright, and they may want a secure hugging hold from you," she said.
- Psychological techniques: "Engaging the mind and senses in a positive way can help reduce pain perception," Chan said. Some ideas are engaging children in conversation, playing their favorite music or bringing along a toy to focus their attention away from the needle. Another tip is to encourage the child to take slow, deep breaths during the process, which can help relax the body and distract from any discomfort.
More tips to combat needle anxiety
To help prevent needle phobia and medical anxiety as your child grows older, Chan offered additional tips.
"Seek out health care providers who are experienced in working with children and who have a gentle approach," she suggested. "Positive experiences with caring professionals can help alleviate anxiety and build trust."
The doctor also emphasized the importance of open communication.
"Encourage your child to express their fears and concerns openly," she said. "Provide reassurance, validate their feelings and listen actively. Be supportive and offer comfort during medical appointments."
At home, she said to consider engaging in role-playing activities where you or your child can play the role of a health care provider and practice procedures like blood draws. "This can help familiarize them with the process and reduce anxiety," she said.
Finally, Chan suggested gradually exposing your child to medical environments and procedures.
"Where possible, start with less invasive experiences and gradually progress to more involved ones," she said. "This exposure can help desensitize them to their fears over time."
What not to do
Chan also pointed out a few things parents should avoid doing, as these may make the situation worse.
- Minimizing or dismissing fears: "Do not downplay or minimize your child's fears," she said. "Acknowledge their feelings and offer support and reassurance."
- Pretending there won't be a vaccination: Avoid misleading your child by pretending there won't be a vaccination during the appointment, the doctor said. "This can erode trust and increase anxiety when they realize the truth."
- Using threats or bribes: "Avoid using threats or bribes to coerce your child into compliance," Chan said. "This can create a negative association with the procedure and further increase fear and anxiety."
- Sharing negative experiences: Refrain from sharing negative stories or experiences related to vaccinations/blood draws, the doctor warned. "This can create unnecessary anxiety and anticipation in your child's mind," she said.
"Remember that each child is unique, and it's essential to tailor your approach to their individual needs and temperament," Chan concluded.
"If your child's fear or anxiety persists or significantly affects their well-being, consider seeking professional help from a pediatrician or child psychologist."