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Ease kids’ vaccine anxiety with these tips
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Ease kids’ vaccine anxiety with these tips

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U.S. health officials have given the final OK to Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for children as young as 5. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave the go-ahead Tuesday night.

While getting shots is very common throughout childhood doctor visits, it can be nerve-wracking for many kids, as well as their parents and caregivers. Medical experts say certain strategies and coping mechanisms can minimize a child’s anxiety and pain.

Applying some of these techniques can improve the vaccination experience in the moment as well as arm children with long-term skills to help them handle difficult or scary medical procedures throughout life, says Jennie Ott, director of child life and family education at University of Chicago Medicine.

Here are 10 tips for easing pain and anxiety during vaccinations.

Don’t lie

Avoid statements like “you’re not getting a vaccine today” or “you won’t feel it at all.”

Being truthful about how the shot will feel may help in how your child reacts to it.

“If you have an awareness of what might be uncomfortable, your perceived discomfort is lower if you’re prepared for it,” says Becca Mitsos, a certified child life specialist at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.

Prepare your child for the appointment

Go over what your child can expect during the exam, and ask what coping strategies they’d like to try. This gives them a greater sense of autonomy, Ott says.

“What I would encourage parents to do is work with their child to come up with a plan,” she says.

That might mean deciding to bring comforting or distracting items, like a favorite television show on a tablet or a favorite stuffed animal.

Validate the child’s feelings

Don’t say “it’s just a shot” or tell kids not to cry.

Medical experts say nervousness is a natural reaction to needles and injections, and adults can acknowledge discomfort from the vaccine.

“Feelings are for feeling, not for fixing,” Mitsos says. “Crying is OK. It’s communication. It’s OK to share how you feel.”

Reaffirm that you’ll be there for your child during the injection, and you’ll get through it together, she says.

“Making it clear that they’re not going to have to go through it alone is important for kids of any age,” Mitsos says.

Ott added that praising a child afterward with statements like “you did it” or “I’m so proud of you for doing it” can also help.

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Offer choices

This could include decisions about which comfort items to bring to the appointment, if the child would like to be held or embraced, to squeeze your hand or to count during the injection. Kids might also have a preference of looking away during the shot or watching the process.

But experts stress that the options be realistic — don’t offer the choice of skipping the vaccine.

Getting the vaccine at the start of a visit can help

If the shot is part of a longer appointment with a medical provider, asking the clinician to administer the vaccination first might minimize a buildup of anxiety during the visit, says Dr. Diana Bottari, a pain specialist with Advocate Aurora Health.

Mitigate injection site pain

Help ease the discomfort of a needle stick by applying numbing agents to the injection site or bringing along a pain-minimizing device.

Topical anesthetics like lidocaine creams or cold sprays can be applied to the skin at the injection site prior to the shot to reduce pain, Bottari says.

Two devices may help alleviate the pain of injection:

ShotBlocker is a small plastic disc with prickly bumps on one side that’s pressed against the skin during the shot, which confuses the body’s nerves and distracts from the injection.

Buzzy ice packs are devices shaped like ladybugs or bees that use cold temperature and vibration to reduce pain during vaccinations.

Stay calm

Shots can make parents and guardians nervous, too. Ott advised grown-ups to try to keep their own anxiety in check because it can exacerbate the emotions of their children.

“A lot of children pick up on parental anxiety,” she says. “We encourage parents to be as calm as they can and really be that sense of support for their child.”

Blow bubbles

Taking slow, deep breaths can be calming. Bottari suggested bringing bubble solution to the appointment and having the child blow bubbles during the injection, to facilitate deep breathing as well as another method of distraction.

For babies, feed them during vaccination

Infants get various immunizations at birth and certain milestones, and babies 6 months and older should get the annual flu shot, according to the CDC.

Bottari recommends nursing or bottle-feeding — which release calming endorphins that reduce pain — before and during vaccinations.

She added that babies and children should be held in a comforting manner, but never held down or overpowered. Minimizing pain and anxiety during infant vaccinations can set the stage for ease with future medical encounters, Bottari says.

For children with needle phobia, therapy may help

Vaccine anxiety can go beyond typical unease. Needle phobia is a persistent and deep-seated fear of medical procedures involving needles or injections.

Exposure therapy can help patients conquer fears through psychologist-led, incrementally difficult experiences with needles, injections and other situations that induce the phobia, according to the American Psychological Association.

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