The 12 Best Pediatrician Tips to Help Kids Who Are Afraid of Shots
May 04, 2016

Dr. sophia mirvissBy Dr. Sophia N. Mirviss

For a parent whose child is afraid of going to the doctor and getting a shot, any opportunity to turn the occasion into less of an ordeal is well worth the effort.

Tears, screams and full-blown meltdowns are a part of parenthood, and gearing up for shots during each trip to the local pediatrician’s office with a frightened child can seem daunting and exhausting. However, it’s important to remember that vaccines can help protect your child from as many as fourteen serious, and potentially deadly, diseases. Shots may hurt a little, but disease can hurt a lot.

Fortunately, there are techniques parents can use to keep their child calm before, during and after a shot.

1. A calm attitude starts with the parent.

You may not realize it, but if you are tense or worried, your child can pick up on it and feel those emotions as well, even at a very young age. Additionally, telling your child that everything will be OK when you hope to calm them can actually have the adverse effect because it’s something they’d normally only hear if there was a problem. A trip to the doctor should feel the same as a trip to the grocery store or the post office.

2. Don’t pull a bait-and-switch. 

It’s tempting to use a fib in order to get your child off to the doctor’s office or to say that the shot won’t hurt. However, once a lie is used, it can build mistrust that makes future visits to the pediatrician worse. It’s best to be honest about your trip to the doctor and emphasize that the visit is a normal part of growing up.

3. Explain why shots are important.

Sometimes, children are most upset because they do not understand why shots are necessary. Of course, parents will need to tailor this explanation to their child’s age, but explaining that shots keep your child healthy and strong — like eating vegetables or brushing their teeth — can help normalize a doctor’s visit.

4. Practice before the appointment. 

Role-playing the experience of getting a shot is an excellent way to demonstrate what will happen at the doctor’s office. Parents often find that using their child’s favorite teddy bear or other stuffed animal to show where the shot will be administered helps introduce how shots work and why a doctor needs to give them. It’s also nice to bring the same stuffed animal with your child to the appointment so they can hold it or the doctor can demonstrate on the toy first.

5. Be honest about what will happen.

Yes, the shot or shots may hurt your child, but you know that the pain will only last for a short second before things are back to normal. It’s perfectly OK to admit to your child that there may be some pain, but reassure them it won’t last long and you can hold your child on your lap or by the hand the entire time.

6. Talk to the doctor about scheduling.

For some children, the CDC’s recommended immunization schedule will call for more than one vaccine per appointment. Most doctor’s offices synchronize these vaccinations in order to cut down on the number of visits needed. Research has shown that spreading out shots across multiple appointments is actually more stressful for children, and leaves them unprotected for longer periods of time.

7. Ask about numbing creams.

Talk to your child’s provider about the possibility of using a numbing cream in order to lessen any pain your child may feel. Most physicians won’t find this necessary because the pain from a shot is so brief, but should your child feel extra uneasy or upset, a numbing cream may be available to help desensitize the area. The knowledge that a “special” cream is being used to lessen pain can help calm a child as well.

8. If possible, bring a sibling or young friend.


Image provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Having another familiar, friendly face in an unfamiliar setting can go a long way in comforting your child. Older siblings can calm younger siblings and younger ones can help distract from what’s happening.

9. Keep up any distractions.

Anything that can distract your child while getting a shot may be of great use. Books, games, stickers, coloring, music or videos played on your phone can push focus away from the doctor or the needle. These tactics have the additional benefit of maintaining normalcy and downplaying that a trip to the doctor’s office isn’t a part of your child’s routine.

10. Give praise. 

Be sure to give your child a lot of encouragement and praise throughout the doctor’s visit. Letting your child know that you are proud of them and that they are being very brave can help alleviate any stress they may feel, and they’ll know that they’ve accomplished something important.

11. Let someone else take over.

Parents are used to taking control of the situation when their child is upset, but it’s perfectly OK to let the experienced providers take over and help keep your child calm. Nurses and physicians are trained for this exact moment in your child’s life and they are very prepared for every outcome, including tears, screams, tantrums, fear and anger.

12. Rewards work.

There’s a reason many doctors will hand out a lollipop or other small treat after administering vaccinations – it works. Even if you’ve managed to distract your child, they still may be a little worked up, which is why a special but small reward for their bravery is deserved. Some parents like to bring juice or snacks for after the appointment or plan a trip to the park or other fun outing on the way home.

Do you have any advice for vaccinating kids without the drama? What are some tips and tricks you use to help your child who is afraid of getting shots at the doctor’s office?  Share your suggestions in the comments below.

About Dr. Sophia N. Mirviss and Pacific Family Practice:  Dr. Sophia N. Mirviss has been providing exceptional primary care to patients from San Francisco, Berkley, Oakland, Marin County and the SF Bay Area for over 25 years. Pacific Family Practices (PFP) offers flexible hours, immediate appointments, same-day walk-ins, and even urgent care from its San Francisco clinic location. PFP’s board-certified family doctors provide a full range of medical care, including pediatrics, women’s health, internal medicine and urgent care.

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19 responses to “The 12 Best Pediatrician Tips to Help Kids Who Are Afraid of Shots”

  1. Jennifer Brauer says:

    One time I calmed down a child who was screaming before an IV was to be inserted. He had just been hit by a car and was in the emergency dept. I suggested he focus on a light on the ceiling. Just stare at the light. I used a very soft calm voice. A variation is to ask the child to pretend he’s a Jedi from Star Wars and focus on a spot on a movie poster or action figure of Luke, or Darth Vader, Rae, or whatever hero character the child admires. The child looks straight ahead at the character, and hopefully in his mind, emulates the bravery he has seen from the tv or movie hero. ( Untested. No evidence, just a thought.)

  2. Albert says:

    This is a great article with a lot of great ideas! With my 4 year old son when he needs to get a shot at the pediatrician’s we do something similar to what Jennifer suggested except for us it’s all about Spiderman getting medicine to make him strong enough to fight the bad guys. Of course in this care the bad guys are measles and the flu 🙂

  3. Lawrence says:

    @Albert – that’s awesome!

  4. Erin Mc says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I will have to try some of these ideas.

  5. Mary Margaret says:

    These 12 tips are very helpful. I have tried many of these and my kids do just fine.

  6. reissd says:

    I’ll try these. After his four years shot, my son picked up a stick and started “vaccinating” everything on the way to the car. That helped him calm down really quick. He vaccinated the sidewalk, the street, a tree, and his carseat.

    I’ll see how the one year visit goes with the youngest using as many of these as possible.

  7. reissd says:

    Thank you!

  8. John Carston says:

    I think it’s a great piece of advice to avoid the bait and switch strategy in parenting since it builds mistrust, like you said. I like the idea of explaining why shots are important, being honest about what will happen, and bringing a friend. Thanks for the helpful child immunisation tips.

  9. Tip number three about explaining why shots are important does seem like a good place to start with a frightened child. It might be smart to ask your doctor to explain to them what immunizations and vaccines do. Hopefully, that will help them realize that it would be worse if they didn’t get the shots.

  10. MI Dawn says:

    My kids, like most, hated shots. I never lied to them (yes, it will hurt a little bit but not for long) and we would focus on the rewards – after the shot visit we would go to the bookstore and they would be allowed to pick out a new book a piece if they were good (good meaning no fighting/screaming/needing to be held down and restrained. Crying was allowed for a few minutes if needed). It got to the point where they were disappointed in MD visits that *didn’t* involve shots.

    As they got older, we did discuss shots help you not get sick, etc. We also let them see mommy and daddy get shots without fuss. Parents are great examples!

  11. ischemgeek says:

    One thing I’d suggest: Make sure if your kid has a history of passing out or getting dizzy from shots, you tell the nurse or doctor so they can be lied down.

    My vasovagal response had progressed into a severe needle phobia long before I knew there was a name for the vasovagal response and there were ways to not pass out and smash my head off the desk/trolly/floor/whatever was in the way on the way down! And then it took the better part of 5 years of desensitization to undo the damage.

  12. I think it’s a good idea to schedule multiple vaccination shots on the same day. My daughter is young and doesn’t like getting shots or vaccinations, but she enjoys the lollipop afterward. It would help a lot to get multiple vaccinations done at one time so she doesn’t have to go through too much pain. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Margaret says:

    Combining Childhood Vaccines is Not Safe.
    Today, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons published Neil Z. Miller’s paper on childhood vaccines:
    Infants who receive several vaccines concurrently are significantly more likely to be hospitalized or die when compared with infants who receive fewer vaccines simultaneously.
    This paper was peer-reviewed by scientists chosen by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS).
    See #47 in the Journal here

    “Although CDC recommends polio, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, rotavirus,
    Haemophilus influenzae type B, and pneumococcal vaccines for two-, four-, and six-month-old
    infants, this combination of eight vaccines administered during a single physician visit was never
    tested for safety in clinical trials,”

  14. Chris says:

    Margaret, where did Neil Z. Miller get his medical/PhD and if a PhD, in what subject? Can you please give us any substantial reason to believe he is competent since he is listed on this site?

    “This paper was peer-reviewed by scientists chosen by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS)”

    If it is peer reviewed, why is that journal not indexed on PubMed? Spoiler: the answer is in the embedded link. Another spoiler: they would have applauded Omar Mateen’s access to an AR-15 (and yes, that is an ad hominem, but a relevant one!).

  15. I found your suggestion to keep the child busy during a shot to be helpful. Distracting them can help them feel comfortable like you mentioned. Talking to the pediatrician about what’s ok for them to do during the shot would be a good idea.

  16. Rick says:

    My Story!

    My Name is Rick Thomas age 48 Years old I am what you call a Dangerous Severe Needle Phobic witch is a Real Medical Condition! for the past 48 Years I have never had a vaccination or Blood work or any Needle procedures Ever Done on me. Back in 1976 I was on Vacation in Wisconsin with a severe Ear Infection and I was taken to a local doctor in town but I had no idea this Doctor was going to Give me a Shot of Penicillin with a 2 inch Needle and Totally got Violent and very angry and was thrown to the Ground by 4 Doctors and I threw them in the Air against the wall and Ran the Hell out of there the Doctor and Nurses from what I was told got Hurt with my Temper! so for the past 48 years I live in Fear and Anger because I Refuse to Ever have a Needle for any Reason even if I am Dying! I Have No Medical insurance and NEVER WILL!!! I Never go to clinics or Hospital and stay away like the plague! I know this might sound extreme but this is my life and I will not Except being a Lab Rat for anyone and I live my life in fear Every day. I have never been so Angry to see Children go through Hell of Vaccinations These Things are very Painful and your Hurting Children and adults everyone has Rights including children but if the Medical field Keeps Treating patients in this manner More and more people will avoid medical care and stay far away. This past week I had a encounter at a local Walgreens of a woman who walked up to me and grabbed me by the arm and I went into full rage telling her to f off keep that crap away from me. I mean what I say I will Never Ever let Anyone stick me with a Needle because they will be very very sorry they tried its funny I have had all these diseases and I am not dead! case in point the following!

    Chicken pox 1967
    measles 1966
    Mumps 1981
    German Measles 1976
    Whooping Cough 1994
    Shingles On my Face! 1994

    None of those Vaccines prevent you from getting these diseases and the shots will cause you to ramp up the diseases you would get later in life but sooner then you think. its part of a Depopulation agenda to get people to die off sooner!

    Advise For Adults & children.

    1. Never Hold or force anyone to take a Needle They Have Needle phobia
    2. if you see a person who has this condition Refuse to treat them and have them seek Help
    3. Children will soon have Rights to refuse Needles and parents will no longer be able to force this on them. I am working on this goal
    4. More and more Family’s are Refusing Vaccinations and that’s a good thing Never Refuse to treat patients because there not vaccinated

    I Understand Hospitals need to care for patients but this subject Has Bothered me for the past 48 years and there is no need for the neglect of patients living with this fear and for the medical field to ignore and force this on people!

    Please Google Needle Phobia A Real Medical Epidemic That 10-20 percent of the world has! 

  17. Chris says:

    “Chicken pox 1967”

    Wow, you got a disease decades before there was a vaccine!

    “Shingles On my Face! 1994”

    And as a result you got shingles before there was a varicella vaccine because you had had chicken pox.

    “None of those Vaccines prevent you from getting these diseases and the shots will cause you to ramp up the diseases you would get later in life but sooner then you think”

    Actually, you have shown is your needle phobia gives you diseases. Now the following is US Census data showing the incidence of reported measles cases during the 20th Century. Do tell us why the rate of measles incidence in the USA dropped 90% between 1960 and 1970.

    Please do not mention deaths (mortality is not the same as morbidity). Do not mention any other decade unless the drop was more than 50% and never went up again. Do not mention any other disease, just trying to keep it simple. And do not mention any other country (England and Wales are not American states).

    Year…. Rate per 100000 of measles
    1912 . . . 310.0
    1920 . . . 480.5
    1925 . . . 194.3
    1930 . . . 340.8
    1935 . . . 584.6
    1940 . . . 220.7
    1945 . . . 110.2
    1950 . . . 210.1
    1955 . . . 337.9
    1960 . . . 245.4
    1965 . . . 135.1
    1970 . . . . 23.2
    1975 . . . . 11.3
    1980 . . . . . 5.9
    1985 . . . . . 1.2
    1990 . . . . .11.2
    1991 . . . . . .3.8
    1992 . . . . . .0.9
    1993 . . . . . .0.1
    1994 . . . . . .0.4
    1995 . . . . . .0.1
    1996 . . . . . .0.2
    1997 . . . . . . 0.1

  18. Becca Holton says:

    My daughter will need to get immunization soon. I’m a bit worried about her she’ll react. However, I feel better after learning I can help improve her experience. It makes sense how being honest about the pain from the shot will help.

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