17 January 2022

Vaccinations are a necessary part of keeping our kids protected from preventable diseases, as well as ensuring we all make it to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic safely. But, for some of us, vaccination is not just another medical appointment, it’s an encounter that can come with fear and anxiety – for kids and parents!

If that’s the situation you’re currently facing with the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s OK. Vaccinations don’t have to be a fraught experience and there are ways to manage expectations, prepare your child and reduce tension, even when needle-anxiety is involved.

Use these 6 tips to make your child’s vaccination experience as easy and calm as possible.

1. Talk openly (but reassuringly) about your child’s fears

Discuss the vaccination with your child or young person in an age-appropriate way. Start by explaining they are having the vaccine to help protect them from COVID-19 and keep them healthy.

For younger children, the Birdie gets her vaccination social story and Birdie and the Virus storybook can help get these conversations started.

Simple, accurate and honest information is best – but remember to be reassuring as well. Don’t tell them it won’t hurt when it might – instead say, ‘some kids say the needle feels like a little pinch but you only feel it for a second or two’.

It can also help to remind your child that the process won’t take long if they sit still and that you’ll be with them the whole time.

The timing of these conversations is important. Consider how much notice you will give your child about the vaccination. If you tell them weeks in advance, you may give them time for their anxiety to build unnecessarily.

What not to do:

It doesn’t help to:

  • tell your child a needle won’t hurt, if it might
  • make fun of them e.g. ‘only babies cry’ or use statements which don’t acknowledge how they feel like ‘just be a brave soldier’
  • use needles as a threat
  • focus too much on the pain.

2. Have a ‘game plan’

We all do better when we know what to expect! Prepare yourself and your child for what they might experience in advance with simple and accurate information. Empower them with decision on some details beforehand such as which arm they will be injected in, whether to sit on your lap or hold your hand, whether to watch the injection or not, what song they want to listen to during the injection etc. This will give them some control over the situation.

It can also help to let your child choose a treat or a special activity you can do together to make sure the experience ends on a positive note.

3. Find a comfortable position

You are the best comfort for your child and feeling your calm presence will help them feel safe. Hold and cuddle your baby or child to comfort and reassure them. The doctor or nurse can show you how to do this securely to help reduce anxiety for you and them. Other options include having your child sitting on your lap, sitting beside you or holding their hand. For older children, just being in the same room with them may be enough.

4. The power of distraction

As most parents and carers know, the power of distraction is very real! Having something to watch or do can change the way your child feels pain. Allow your child to choose to watch a video, play a game, sing a song – anything that interests them and shifts their focus.

Ask them a question, tell a joke or a funny story – it helps to distract their thoughts away from the needle.

(Distractions are also effective before entering the room as waiting can sometimes be the most worrying part.)

5. Remember to breathe

Breathing and relaxation can help relieve pain and anxiety. Deep breathing can be practiced together before the vaccination. Ask your child to take deep, slow belly breaths in and out to calm themselves (breathe with them to keep them on track). For breathing techniques and other relaxation exercises, watch the Relaxing with Birdie video (or read the book)

Children look to their caregivers for cues on how to behave, so the most effective way to get your child feeling calm is by seeing you acting calm! Use positive words (I’m so proud of you’ and ‘you are doing so well’), feelings and actions to help them to feel safe and in control. Take a deep breath, smile and relax your shoulders.

6. Praise and encourage them when it’s over

It’s a relief for everyone when the vaccination is done, so be positive about how they’ve coped with the situation (even if they got a bit upset). This reinforces the way they coped so they can do the same again.  Many children benefit from comforting hugs to help them calm down afterwards and feel OK again. Take some time to set your child up for success next time by talking about their ‘game plan’, and if they would like to do anything differently.

For more information, see How to support your child if they’re nervous about needles.