The fear of getting a shot is often greater than any discomfort actually caused by the needle. But there are things you can do to help make vaccinations a positive and calm experience for children.

Dr. Ross Newman, a pediatrician at Eugene Pediatric Associates, knows firsthand the importance vaccines play in protecting kids against disease. He also knows that, for most kids, it’s their least favorite part of the visit, so preparation is important. That includes letting them know in advance that they will be receiving a shot.

“It’s never a good idea to surprise children with vaccinations, because that can put them into an instant panic,” he says. “Always let them know what’s going to happen; be honest with them. Reassure them that it’s going to be a short-lived discomfort and offer positive reinforcement afterwards.”

Time to prepare
The amount of notice you should give depends on the age and maturity of your child. A younger child needs less time to prepare, while an older child may need more time. In general, it’s appropriate to tell the child on the day of the appointment. Otherwise, it’s not a good idea to give your child too much time to think about and focus on the needle.

The language you use is also important. Use kid-friendly words like “vaccine” or “immunization” instead of “shot,” which may have negative associations. You can describe the feeling as a “pinch,” “pressure” or “small poke” instead of words like “sting” or “burn.” In addition, refer to nurses and staff as “helpers” to make a connection that they’re there to help them receive their vaccine, not hurt them with a needle.

Dr. Newman says that especially with older children, it’s a good idea to help them understand the importance of getting vaccines. Explain that immunizations make it safer for them to participate in fun activities with other kids.

“If you have older children, feel free to communicate more openly with them,” he says. “Tell them the reason for vaccinations, how they help protect them and the community.”

Calming techniques
There are some things you can do to try to minimize a child’s anxiety. Here are a few tips collected from the American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control & Prevention:

  • If your child has a special stuffed animal or toy that they find comforting, allow them to bring it with them.
  • Be reassuring and explain that it will “pinch” for just a second and then it will be over.
  • Remain calm, as children easily pick up on emotional clues.
  • Acknowledge any anxiety they may be feeling and let them know you understand without dismissing their worries. Dismissing them may cause them to be more anxious. Also avoid apologetic language; keep it positive and encouraging.
  • Divert their attention to something else in the room or a different topic of conversation.
  • A series of deep breaths may also help.

When the shot is over, give your child lots of praise. By praising your child, you’re reinforcing positive behavior and setting your child up for more success the next time they need a vaccine.

Flu vaccine
While a lot of attention has been focused on the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations for children, Dr. Newman says we must remember that there are other vaccine-preventable diseases that are also important, including influenza.

“Flu causes some of the highest burden of disease in the United States year after year after year, including hospitalizations and death,” he says. “The flu shot doesn’t always prevent the flu, but it does significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization, pneumonia or severe infection.”

Flu season typically runs September through March, and the flu vaccine is available now.

Other vaccines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guard against a whole host of serious illnesses, such as hepatitis, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, meningitis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, encephalitis and HPV.

If you have any questions about vaccines for your child, be sure to talk with your child’s primary care provider.