More Smiles and Less Tears: How to Ease Your Child’s Pain and Fear of Needles

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Vaccinations and blood draws are never fun, especially for kids. Learn helpful techniques to improve you and your child's experience before your next trip to the doctor.


No parent wants to see their child in pain and no child wants to hurt. When it comes to doctor’s appointments and procedures, there can be a range of emotions building up before the appointment.

For children, shots (e.g., vaccinations) and blood draws can be scary and distressing experiences. If unmanaged, this sense of fear can carry into adulthood. This can even lead to poor health as an adult due to avoidance of vaccinations and doctor’s visits.

As a caregiver, it can be extremely difficult to watch your child get poked by a needle. With tears in their eyes and worry on their face, your child turns to you. In that moment, you may find it difficult to know what to say or do.

“Research indicates we don’t have to just watch our kids suffer through needles, there are things we can do that are proven to reduce children’s pain and distress during shots or other painful procedures,” said Riley pediatric psychologist, Amy E. Williams, PhD.

Try out these techniques at your child’s next doctor’s appointment:

Say This, Not That

From a young age, children develop the ability to sense their parents’ emotions. As your child’s advocate and protector, they turn to you for guidance and reassurance as they determine how to react to a situation. The words and tone you use play an important role in managing your child’s expectations and fear prior to a shot.

Prior to the appointment, walk your child through what they can expect using simple and honest explanations. You might tell them “first, the nurse will clean the area which will feel ‘cold and wet’, then your nurse will give you a shot which will feel like ‘a pinch’ to keep you ‘strong and healthy.’

Once you’ve explained the shot or procedure in words they understand, ask them about any fears they may have.

“It’s important to address your child’s concerns and correct any misconceptions they might have about what will happen at their appointment. This will help them feel prepared, calm their worries, and make the appointment go more smoothly,” said Riley pediatric psychologist, Mary K. Lynch, PhD

Throughout the appointment, remain calm and speak softly. Encourage positive coping by avoiding procedural talk. Instead, talk about something unrelated to the procedure that they enjoy talking about.

Afterwards you can talk about what your child did well during the procedure. Be sure to maintain eye contact with your child rather than watching what the provider is doing. A reassuring smile goes a long way, too!

Avoid saying things that downplay the procedure or will reinforce fearful emotions. Including:

  • “This won’t hurt”
  • “I’m sorry”
  • “Don’t cry”
  • “It’s okay”
  • “Be brave”
  • “This will be over fast”

Instead, focus on things your child can do. Praise them when they do something well. Including:

  • “Let’s read this book together.”
  • “Let’s play I-Spy.”
  • “Sing a song with me. What’s your favorite song?”
  • “You’re doing a great job sitting still.”
  • “Let’s take big breaths and blow bubbles.”
  • “Tell the nurse about your new puppy!”

Bring Distractions

Averting your child’s focus from a shot or blood draw can help minimize pain.

“Research tells us that keeping our minds distracted from the shot actually helps block some of the pain signals from ever making it to the brain,” said Williams

Bringing your child’s favorite interactive toy or game or snuggle pet can keep them engaged during the appointment. Here are some ideas to keep your child distracted:

Infants

  • Breastfeeding
  • Favorite comfort object
  • Light-up toys
  • Rattles
  • Soft music
  • Pacifier

Young Children

  • Books
  • Bubbles
  • Pinwheels
  • Singing
  • Sensory toys
  • Kazoo

School-Age Children

  • Bubbles
  • Books
  • Games
  • Singing
  • Videos
  • Music

Teenagers

  • Music
  • Video games or other technology
  • Talk about favorite topics
  • Reading

Provide Physical Support through Comfort Holds

Children feel a sense of safety and security from their parent or caregiver’s physical touch. In addition to reassurance, properly holding a child during an injection can also make the process more efficient as the child will be more still.

“Laying down on an exam table is a vulnerable and scary position for children. Using a Comfort Hold will allow your child to feel calm and safe,” said Lynch.

For all children, it is important to hold your child in a way that feels like an embrace and not a restraint. This varies depending on the age and size of a child as well as the area where the shot will be administered.

For infants, it is best to cradle the baby against your chest so they are facing you. If possible, breastfeed, bottle feed or offer a pacifier to your child throughout the procedure to distract from the pain while providing comfort, pain relief and closeness.

Young children under the age of five take shots best when they sit on your lap, facing inwards towards you. Their legs might be hugging your body or both legs may be to one side of your body. This position gives you the ability to hug and comfort them while blocking their view of the shot being administered.

School-age-children can either sit on your lap with their back to you or sit across your lap leaning sideways into your chest. Both positions allow you to gently hug your child while encouraging them to focus on their preferred distraction.

For Preteens and adolescents, you may sit in the chair next to them, perhaps holding their hand or with your hand on their back. This allows your teen to freely play with their choice of distraction while receiving support from you.

If you are uncertain of how to hold your child, your provider can help guide you on what position may be the best option during the shot or procedure.

Use a Buzzy® Aid

Buzzy ® was created by a pediatrician and nurse to serve as a rapid intervention for pain management for children undergoing needle-related procedures.

The child- friendly device gently reduces pain sensation in the area where the needle will be injected through vibration and ice. The sensation of the vibration and ice helps block pain signals, reducing and even eliminating pain.

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