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Fear of needles Haley Miller, LCSW Behavioral Health Children’s Wisconsin

Just a little poke: How to help kids overcome a fear of needles

In pediatric primary care offices, administering vaccines has become an essential and routine part of care. However, for many children, the mere thought of having a needle inserted into their arm is very upsetting. Anxiety before receiving a shot is common, no matter how old your child is, and it can be heightened when more than one vaccine is given at a time. 

No one wants to see their children in distress like this. Whether it's for measles or mumps or the flu or COVID-19, vaccines are life-saving advances in medicine that have eradicated diseases and prevent other diseases from becoming life threatening, it’s important to make sure kids stay current on their vaccines. 

As a behavioral health consultant and part of the new Integrated Mental and Behavioral Health program at Children’s Wisconsin, I am a member of your child’s primary care team. I’m a licensed mental health professional who provides consultation and support to the primary care physicians, as well as children, teens and caregivers regarding mental and behavioral health needs. This could include helping with things like feelings, how a child acts, or other difficulties children and teens are experiencing.

A big part of my job these days is to help kids and teens who are fearful of getting shots. It's good to have a few strategies in place to ease this fear and help kids get through a very quick and important part of life. Here are some tips and tricks that I share when I’m called into an exam room with someone facing needle fear. (Believe it or not, I do this at least three times a day!)

Talk to your kids: Be open with your kids that they are getting a shot today. Let them know it’s going to be a little pinch. Validate your child’s fear. Don’t downplay it. It’s real.

Remain calm: It’s really important for parents and caregivers to remain calm. Kids often take their cues from their parents, so if you remain calm, that will help your child.

Distractions: Distraction techniques are a good way of helping some kids get through the shots. A few things that can help — a favorite stuffed animal or book. Sometimes parents put on a show or music on a phone or tablet. Offering your child a distraction lets them focus on something else, not the shot.

Choices: Offering choices can help kids feel a little more in control of their fear and the situation. Let your child choose where they’d like to sit, which arm they’d like to get the shot in, if you’re using a phone or table for distraction, let them choose the show or music.

Deep breathing: There is power in breathing, especially when we take slow, deliberate breaths. Studies show that deep breathing has a calming effect on the brain, so I work with kids to practice this. I guide kids to get in a rhythm of deep breathing and, when ready, I’ll have the kids take a deep breath before the needle goes in and breathe out when it goes out.

Cough trick: Consider the “cough trick.” It’s as simple as it sounds. Just cough as the shot is going in. I’ve had a lot of success with kids using this.

The Buzzy Bee: Some offices may use a little device called the Buzzy Bee. It looks like a toy bumble bee. It has a little ice pack for wings and it vibrates when placed on the child’s arm offering a different kind of distraction. Some kids won’t even notice the shot going in. You can ask if your pediatrician’s office has this tool available or you can purchase on your own and bring it with.

Watching other kids: Sometimes it helps if there is a brave sibling who also has to get shot in the room and letting the scared child watch how easy it is. If you don’t have a sibling getting a shot, you can find videos of people getting shots on YouTube. Parents, be sure to watch the videos first to make sure it is appropriate for your child and not something that will escalate their fear.

Candy: Yes, I said candy! The body’s natural response when tasting sugar is an endorphin release that can decrease the sensation of pain.

Things to avoid with a fearful child

No broken promises: Don’t make promises for “no shots” any time you are going to the clinic. If you make and break that promise, trust is broken. This could potentially have a negative ripple effect for future doctor’s office visits.

No surprises: Don’t surprise your child with a trip to the doctor for a vaccination. It can raise anxiety in kids. Be as upfront with your kids as possible. Talk to them, answer all their questions and reassure them.

No jokes: Don’t joke about the doctor or nurse giving a shot as punishment. No single shot is ever given to make a child uncomfortable — don’t create that myth, as it sets your child up to believe that the doctor may harm them. Once your child get through their shots, I like to encourage parents to chat with their kids about what went well. It can help set the stage for the next round of vaccines.

Never hesitate to tell your pediatrician if your child is dealing with needle fear. Your child’s doctor will help you and your child every step of the way. If your child sees a Children’s Wisconsin pediatrician, ask if they have a behavioral health consultant and let them know your concern. We are happy to help with easing needle fear and any other issues your child may have.