Vaccines are an important part of keeping children healthy, and for most parents that fact is easy to understand. But how can you explain vaccines to a child, especially one who isn't old enough to understand why a doctor is, if only for a moment, giving them an owie.
Current medical science now provides protection against 16 potentially deadly diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many vaccinations are administered in several doses, for maximum effectiveness, so kids whose parents follow reputable medical advice — like the CDC Vaccination Schedule — will receive one or multiple shots at the majority of their well visits for the first few years of their life. In other words, there will be numerous opportunities to talk to your child about vaccines.
Romper spoke with Dr. Ilana Sherer, a board-certified pediatrician and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, to learn how parents can explain vaccines to their kids at various ages.
As soon as your child is able to understand you, you can start talking to them about vaccinations. "Put it into context of the rest of the visit as matter of factly as you can," Sherer tells Romper, suggesting that parents follow the following script:
"Today we're going to the doctor and first the nurse will bring us back and weigh you and see how tall you are. Then the doctor will check your heart and your ears. Finally, you'll get two shots to protect you from getting sick. Then we can pick out a prize from the toy box. Do you think you'll get a sticker or a toy? Then we'll go home and have pizza for dinner."
Explaining the whole process helps children know they don't have to be nervous about every aspect of their visit. Giving a reason for the shots puts this necessary part of their doctor's visit in a positive light. This explanation may not keep your kid from crying when the needle goes in, but it can help them feel safe — or even proud — about getting their shots. And, rather than dwelling on the hard part, moving right on to talking about the prize and dinner shifts the child's attention to something more pleasant. Using this method, you can be honest with your kid about what's coming without causing undue pre-visit anxiety.
For a slightly older child, like a preschooler, Sherer suggests giving essentially the same explanation as you would to a toddler, "but give the kid a bit more opportunity to be in control." She suggests parents use the following set-up:
"Today at the doctor she'll check your ears, nose, and mouth, and listen to your heart. Do you want to bring your stethoscope to listen to my heart? Then she'll give you two shots to protect you from getting sick. What type of bandaids do you think they'll have — Mickey Mouse or Paw Patrol? Do you think you want the shots in your arms or your legs? And which toy will you pick out afterward?"
"Talk about your own experiences," Sherer continues, noting that at this age children are developing empathy. Saying something like, "Do you know that parents have to get shots, too? I got one on this arm last month so that I could protect myself and you kids from getting sick with the flu. It hurt for a second but then I was so glad I could help keep us all safe," can help your child understand that this process is something many people experience.
By the time your child is in preschool, they may have heard about painful shots from stories or peers, and that can build fear. “If your child is fixated on the shot hurting, acknowledge that, but move on from it," Sherer says. She suggests that you can tell your child the following:
"Yes, the squeeze from the shot can be uncomfortable for a few seconds, but I know that you can cope with it. Let’s make a plan to make it more comfortable. Do you want me to squeeze your hand during it or do you want to blow bubbles?"
Helping kids come up with a plan can give them something to rehearse mentally, instead of re-playing their fears. And, Sherer says, you can use the plan to help reassure the child as needed, “If your child starts to 'spiral' with fear, reassure him, ‘remember, we have our plan. This is going to be a different experience than last time.’”
As your kids get older, you can repeat these explanations, and your kids may start to have their own questions as well. Sherer recommends expanding your explanations as your kids are able to understand more, and says that elementary age children may be ready for a bit of medical history. Sherer offers the following script to explain why vaccines are important:
"Back when grandma and grandpa were little, kids used to get very very sick. They'd have to stay home from school for weeks or months, and sometimes they would even die. We are so lucky that we get to protect you from those diseases with vaccines. I know they can be scary and hurt for a few moments, and you can squeeze my hand or hug me. And then we can celebrate that we're able to keep you and our family safe from diseases."
Elementary school age kids have a growing knowledge of the world, so you can pull in examples that they’re familiar with. “If they know or know of anyone who is disabled from polio or have read any books where the characters get measles, you can talk about these," Sherer says.
Middle Schoolers & Beyond
By middle school, children probably have a good understanding of basic science, including concepts like experimentation, scientific discoveries, viruses, and bacteria. They are also able to understand more complex thoughts and follow a more complicated history. So, use those new skills when you explain vaccines.
“One of the most amazing things that scientists have done in the few hundred years is figure out how to keep us safe from infectious diseases through vaccines," Sherer says." I would probably talk to my middle schooler about the history of vaccines.”
She suggests telling the history of vaccines in the following way:
"In the late 1700s there was a horrible disease called smallpox that caused people to get painful blisters all over their body and then die. A man named Edward Jenner noticed that people who worked with cows didn't get smallpox, but they got another, more mild disease, called cowpox. He realized that cowpox made them resistant to getting sick with a worse disease."
"So, he developed the first vaccine, where he actually gave people a tiny bit of cowpox virus to get them slightly sick so that they wouldn't then die from smallpox. It took a few hundred years for scientists to learn how to make vaccines that didn't get people sick Now, most vaccines aren't actually active viruses — they're molecules or small pieces of viruses that cause the immune system to become confused. You don't get sick from vaccines, but they make your body think you've already had a disease so that you also don't get sick from the disease. And, thanks to vaccines, smallpox no longer exists."
"We're pretty close to getting rid of polio, which is a disease that used to affect your grandparents when they were kids and cause kids to die or lose their ability to walk. And there are many other diseases that are close to being eradicated thanks to vaccines. So, we're so lucky we get to use the best technology of all to keep you and your friends safe from disease that we haven't yet eradicated — like measles, whooping cough, and flu. But hopefully when you have children and grandchildren, those diseases will sound old fashioned, just like polio or smallpox!"
Or, if your middle schooler (or high schooler or college kid) won’t listen to you for that long, you can direct them to a reputable website that will explain vaccines in kid-friendly terminology, like Immunize For Good or KidsHealth.