How to support your child if they’re nervous about needles

Child receiving band aid after needleFollowing your child’s recommended treatment, therapy or daily healthcare routines is important for achieving the best possible health outcomes for their illness or injury. And having a consistent daily routine helps children know what to expect and supports their involvement in their own healthcare.

But we know this is often easier said than done due to the realities of day-to-day busy family life, not to mention multiple treatments, the unpredictable nature of the medical conditions, and children with their own strong opinions.

The good news is that there are ways to help build a habit around your child’s healthcare routines and treatment.

Try these methods that many parents and carers find helpful: 

Before the vaccination

It’s important to prepare your child for what they might experience when they are immunised – we all do better when we know what to expect! Giving your child some choice and control over the situation (where you can) will help everyone feel a little less anxious.

If you have any concerns about the vaccination, talk with your health professional ahead of time (preferably without your child present). Having as much information as possible will help you answer questions your child might have.

Talk about what’s going to happen

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

Simple, accurate and honest information is best – but remember to be reassuring as well. Don’t tell them it won’t hurt – 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 can be important. Think about how much notice you give your child about the vaccination. If you tell them weeks in advance, you could be giving them time for their anxiety to build unnecessarily. But don’t surprise them either. In the end, you know your child better than anyone, so use your instinct as to how much notice you give them.

Allow your child the time and space to ask all the questions they have.

It doesn’t help to:

  • Tell your child a needle won’t hurt if it will
  • Make fun of them e.g. ‘only babies cry’ or use statements which don’t acknowledge how they feel e.g. ‘just be a brave soldier’.
  • Focus too much on the pain. This might increase their perception of how much it hurts and not focus on how well they coped.

Make a plan

Planning a list of coping strategies with your child in advance, and packing the necessary items, can take the pressure off on the day. Some effective coping tools include:

  • Reading a book
  • Singing (or listening to) a favourite song
  • Playing a game on a phone or tablet
  • Hugging a favourite toy, pillow or blanket
  • Calm breathing
  • A cuddle
  • A fidget toy
  • Squeezing a hand or stress ball
  • Numbing cream (see below)

Give your child as many choices as possible (e.g. what toy to bring from home, whether to sit on your lap or hold your hand, which arm to have the injection in, whether to watch the injection or do something else). This gives them some control over the situation.

Pain relief

Buzzy Bee

  • Topical anaesthetic (numbing cream) can be used to numb the vaccination area on your child’s skin. They can block the transmission of pain signals to the brain. They’re available from your pharmacist without a prescription. Depending on the cream, it must be applied 30 minutes to 1 hour before vaccination.
  • Rubbing the skin for 30 seconds before the procedure can have a numbing effect.
  • Some parents choose to give their children pain-relief medication (such as children’s paracetamol) before a vaccination.
  • Cold packs and vibration devices (such as a Buzzy bee) can also help numb the sting of a needle. These provide a distraction by replacing pain with temperature and movement.

Get the doctor or nurse involved

Doctors and nurses will have their own strategies for dealing with patients who have needle phobias. They’ve spent a career giving injections, so they will know every trick in the book. Let them know in advance your child has a phobia, so they can prepare any strategies and keep the needle hidden.

During the vaccination

Choose a comforting position

Parents/carers are a great source of comfort for anxious children and young people, and remaining close and providing a comforting touch during the vaccination can help them feel safe and secure. Let them choose how they want you to help them through the experience, such as sitting on your lap, sitting beside you holding your hand – or just being in the room with them.

The power of distraction

Having something to watch or do can change the way we feel 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).

Remember to breathe

Breathing and relaxation can help relieve pain and anxiety – practice these with your child beforehand. Ask your child to take deep, slow belly breaths in and out to calm them (breathe with them to keep them on track).

Be calm and positive.

Children look to their parents and carers to judge whether they’re in danger. They’re less likely to worry if you show them there’s nothing to worry about. Use positive words (such as “you are doing so well” and “I’m so proud of you”) and actions to help your child to feel safe and in control. Use positive language

After the vaccination

It’s a relief for everyone when the vaccination is done, but it’s useful to take some time to set up your child for success next time by comforting them, providing praise and making a plan for next time. This reinforces the way they coped so they can do the same again.

Be positive about how they’ve coped with the situation (even if they got a bit upset). Many children also benefit from comforting hugs to help them calm down afterwards and feel OK again.

Provide a treat or do a special activity together to make sure the experience ends on a positive note.

Follow your health professional’s advice to address any discomfort your child may experience after the vaccination.

If your child needs ongoing help

If your child is experiencing a prolonged phobia or anxiety about needles and vaccination, ask your doctor for advice and recommendations on how you can help your child. Your doctor may even be able to refer you to an immunisation specialist for children, such as the Queensland Specialist Immunisation Service in the Queensland Children’s Hospital.

Useful resources and websites

Birdie gets her vaccination

The Meg Foundation

Kids and needle phobia

Queensland Specialist Immunisation Service