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How to Calm a Child During a Shot

New research suggests that how parents soothe their child during a shot matters.

Key points

  • A recent study found that what parents say and do in the first minute after a shot is associated with how upset a child becomes.
  • In the first minute after a shot, parents' use of coping statements and distraction was associated with more distress.
  • In the second minute after a shot, parents' use of coping statements was associated with less distress.

As the vaccination for COVID-19 becomes available to young children, parents may be wondering how to best prepare their children to cope with the pain and stress typically associated with shots for young children. Is there anything that parents can say or do to reduce the distress associated with a shot?

A study published in July 2021 found that what parents say in the first minute after a shot may make a difference in reducing a child’s distress. This study included 760 preschool children (4-to-5 years of age) in the greater Toronto area and is the largest study in the world examining caregivers and children during childhood vaccinations. The researchers observed the children and their interactions with their parents or caregivers during a standard vaccination.

In the first minute after the shot, using coping statements (such as “You’ve got this” or “It will feel better soon”) was actually associated with more distress in children when compared to parents who did not use these statements. In addition, trying to distract the children by talking about something else was also associated with more distress in the first minute after the shot.

However, in the second minute after the shot (when the child was presumably calmer), coping statements (“You got this” or “It will feel better soon”) were associated with less distress. In the second minute, distress-producing comments (such as “don’t be a baby”) was associated with more distress.

In addition, the child’s distress before the shot was associated with their distress after the shot, emphasizing the importance of keeping children calm leading up to the shot.

So what should parents do to reduce distress related to a shot?

  1. Before the shot, try to keep your child as calm as possible. Engage in coping strategies with them (such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization) to maintain their calm state.
  2. Immediately after a shot (less than a minute after the injection), help your child by staying calm yourself and using physical strategies such as hugging, cuddling, or holding hands.
  3. Do not use coping statements or try to distract your child immediately after a shot. This is likely to increase their distress.
  4. When your child starts to calm down (more than a minute after the shot), use coping statements (“You've got this."; “The pain will be over soon.”)
  5. Never criticize or invalidate a child’s fear or distress related to a shot.

Why does this matter? Research finds that helping children to successfully cope with the distress related to a shot may reduce their chances of developing a needle phobia and avoiding of future vaccinations or other essential medical care.

References

Shah, V., Taddio, A., Rieder, M. J., & Team, H. (2009). Effectiveness and tolerability of pharmacologic and combined interventions for reducing injection pain during routine childhood immunizations: systematic review and meta-analyses. Clinical therapeutics, 31, S104-S151.

Shiff, I., Greenberg, S., Garfield, H., & Riddell, R. P. (2021). Trajectories of distress regulation during preschool vaccinations: child and caregiver predictors. PAIN.

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