Not only do some adults avoid healthcare due to their fear of needles, but research indicates that poorly managed pain in early childhood can change how people feel pain, and may even make them more vulnerable to it later on.
The good news is that, with a few simple strategies, parents can ease their child’s fears, help manage the pain, and reduce the risk of their child developing a phobia.
How to make it better
Children receive around 20 routine vaccinations before the age of five, not including annual flu shots (which are recommended for everyone older than six months of age, with some exceptions. So needles are a fact of life, and vaccinations are essential to fighting the spread of viruses like measles and whooping cough. However, there are several things that parents can do to ratchet down the tension and help ease the pain and trauma of needles. The techniques for creating a calmer environment and reducing pain depend largely on your child’s age.
Babies Physical contact is key. ImmunizeBC recommends parents stay calm and cuddle their baby in an upright position. Soothe babies by breastfeeding before, during and after the shot, if possible. Or you can give babes some sugar water, which releases natural pain-reducing chemicals in the brain, just before the shot. (To make your own sugar water, boil water for two minutes, then mix 10 mL of the water with 1 teaspoon of sugar. Let cool before offering to your baby.)
Prepare your little one by talking about getting a needle ahead of time—for some kids, that will mean minutes ahead of an appointment, but if your child tends to like lots of notice for new experiences, you can start discussing the vaccination a few days before.
During the needle, encourage deep breathing.
What if they’re afraid?
By working together, parents and healthcare providers can help assuage a child’s fear of needles. Let the nurse or doctor know of any issues your child has in advance so the appointment can be better managed.
What should you do if your child is inconsolable? You won’t be able to talk a screaming child into calming down and agreeing to a vaccination, says van Tonder. She says that it’s better to help hold your child still (but never pin her down) to get the injection over and done with; if that isn’t sufficient, then parents should step aside or leave the room to let the nurse or doctor take over.
The good news: An extreme fear of needles can be overcome in a short time. With the help of a psychologist, children can learn coping skills to help them defeat their fears, says Chambers. “Some individuals will struggle for years with needle phobia, and don’t realize that with the support of a trained professional it could be treated in a month or two,” she explains.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2015 issue with the headline “Get your best shot” on pp. 26-28.