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How to Help a Toddler Who’s Scared of Shots — & Avoid a Meltdown

Unless you’re opting out of the recommended immunization schedule (please don’t), your kid is getting shots. Lots of shots. Shots that probably hurt you to watch almost as much as they hurt your child to get. Well, OK, maybe not quite. But there’s good news: As parents, we’ve got an arsenal of tools to help our littles handle the pain. The latest (and most surprising)? Letting them mirror our own way of dealing with the experience.

New research from York University’s Ouch Cohort at the Faculty of Health in Toronto found that “the amount of distress and pain felt by a preschooler during a vaccination is strongly related to how their parents help them cope before and during an appointment” according to a news release about the research, which looked at data from nearly 550 children who were examined during infant and preschool vaccinations. The findings were published in the journal Pain last fall.

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Interestingly, the kids who expressed the most pain as preschoolers weren’t the ones who also expressed the most discomfort as babies. “We actually found that the strongest predictors of pain were the parents and what the parents were doing,” coauthor, Ouch lab director and certified psychological associate Dr. Rebecca Pillai Riddell tells SheKnows. “We could look at how a parent was soothing their baby at 12 months of age and predict how much pain the child would express at preschool vaccinations four years later.”

So, what exactly is the takeaway for moms and dads who just want to make it all better? Pillai Riddell lays it out: “You can’t just do good things; you have to avoid doing distress-promoting things as well,” she tells us.

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It turns out there’s power in that specific combination. So:

  • Do acknowledge that needles are painful. “You don’t want to lie to your child and say that needles are not painful because that doesn’t help the situation,” Pillai Riddell says. Try saying something like, “Yes, this will hurt a little bit, but it will be over soon.”

  • Do hold them close. “You want to be in close proximity to your child; that’s a really basic need we have when we’re distressed,” Pillai Riddell says. “We want to be close to those who make us feel secure and safe.”

  • Do breastfeed if you can. “Breastfeeding is a fantastic way to reduce pain,” explains Pillai Riddell.

  • Do distract them — at the right time. Distraction works well, says Pillai Riddell, but it must be timed right, and surprisingly, that’s not right during the time the needle goes in. (That’s “peak distress” time, when your kiddo’s eyes will likely be squeezed shut.) “That’s when you hold them close and stay calm,” Pillai Riddell explains. “But once their eyes start opening, that’s when you put in the distraction.” That could be anything from getting out your iPad to trying to make them laugh to looking out the window together.

  • Don’t reassure them too much. It’s counterintuitive, but post-shot, don’t repeatedly reassure your child by saying, “It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s OK.” That actually leads to more stress according to Pillai Riddell. “Saying it once is fine, but when things are really OK, you don’t need to say it over and over again.”

  • Don’t criticize your child. Avoid critical phrases like, “Big girls don’t cry,” “Your big brother didn’t cry as much,” or “Come on, you can be better than that.” These exacerbate distress after a needle, Pillai Riddell says.

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And aside from managing your own behavior, you can also talk to your child’s health care provider about topical anesthetics, Pillai Riddell says. A numbing cream, applied to the area of vaccination about 45 minutes prior to the shot, can definitely help.

But possibly the most important — and most difficult — tip for avoiding those doctor’s office meltdowns is to avoid expressing your own anxiety in front of your child. Sorry, needle-phobic parents: It’s crucial you keep your own fears in check. Your kid can pick up on that anxiety — especially if she feels your heart racing while you’re holding her close. Of course, calming yourself is easier said than done, but just take a few deep breaths and do your best; it will make the experience easier for you and your child.

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