Tips for helping kids cope with fear of needles

A fear of needles is all too real for many kids, but a D.C. child-life specialist has tips for parents who want to make the experience easier for them.

“Nobody really likes to be poked. We all have had those uncomfortable experiences,” said Kellie Matters, a certified child-life specialist at Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill Medical Center’s Interdisciplinary Pediatric Center.

“But there’s many things you can do as the parents to help prepare your child for that experience and help them through it.”

First, be truthful. Warn children what’s coming and put the experience into context to avoid extreme speculation.

“You don’t want to just say: ‘Yes, you’re going to get a shot today at the doctor’s office. It will be painful.’ Kids can really blow up in their mind how extreme that pain might be. It’s very appropriate to tell them either the day before or morning of. You know your child best,” Matters said.

For instance, Matters said parents could say: “Yes, you’re going to get a poke at the doctor’s office, but it will just hurt for a second. And after you’re finished, we get a Band-Aid and a sticker” or some other reward.

Kellie Matters, a certified child-life specialist at Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill Medical Center’s Interdisciplinary Pediatric Center, says it’s important to be honest with kids about what to expect. (Courtesy Kaiser Permanente)

During the shot, offer as many choices as possible — such as which arm, sitting with mom or dad, or in a chair or on a stretcher.

“Any little choice that you can give back to them will work wonders with their ability to cope with that vaccine,” Matters said.

Create a distraction with a favorite toy, a book from home, a video on a phone or a sing-along song. Another possible distraction: getting them to picture their favorite place, like a pool.

Matters gave an example of how that would work: “‘Let’s think about last week when you were at the pool. What did you feel? What did you hear? What did you see?’”

“[That] can really engage those senses away from the pain that’s occurring. Even, ‘What are we going to do the rest of the day?’ Anything to get them thinking about something a little bit more positive,” she said.

What about pain during and after the shot at the injection site?

“You can check with your local office to see if there’s anything available for pain management. There’s so much out there right now between numbing sprays and creams or little nerve distractors. … It’s always worth ‘an ask’ to your doctor to see if you can use any of those things to lessen that pain for your child,” Matters said.

One nerve distractor is called a Buzzy Bee. The vibrating device is held on the body anywhere between the brain and where the pain is occurring, to jumble up the nerve message and make it less intense.

After the injection, Matters said, it’s important for children to actively use the arm that got the shot.

“Don’t let it just hang stiff for the rest of the day because that will really increase that muscle soreness,” she said. “If they’re really complaining of site soreness, you can just put a little ice pack on it.”

Parents should be mindful of their own behavior and emotions, too, and be confident and calm.

Matters quoted author L.R. Knost: “‘When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.’” 

Matters reiterated the importance of being honest with kids about what to expect, and not being tempted to do anything necessary to get through one appointment and one shot.

“Whether that’s holding a child down or tricking them or bribing them. Just know that you’re setting yourself up for a more difficult appointment next time around. So you really want to think about this in a longitudinal way, and try to support kids as best as you can through each appointment,” she said.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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