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How To Make Vaccines Easier For Kids, According To A Pediatrician

By Rae Goodman
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Needles don't bother me, but I still don't love getting my flu shot. Still, I do it every year, and I make sure my kids get their flu shots every year, too. I also make sure my children are vaccinated, so I've absolutely been that concerned parent wondering how to make vaccines easier for kids. I know that when I take them for those essential shots they'll be scared, they'll be sore, they might feel tired and run-down, and they might distrust the doctor at their next visit. But I also know vaccinations are essential to the continued health and wellness of not just my children, but everyone my children come in contact with.

Romper spoke with Dr. Ilana Sherer, a board certified pediatrician and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, to better understand how parents can make this process easier for everyone involved. Because while no one wants to watch their child cry, it's far easier to endure a difficult doctor's visit than it is to watch your child contract a dangerous disease that could have otherwise been avoided had they received the necessary vaccinations at the recommended time.

Vaccines are 90 to 99% effective, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and before they're administered to the public they are reviewed and licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians. The CDC has a schedule for when certain immunizations should be administered, as well as reasons why someone should not be vaccinated, like if they are allergic, if they're pregnant, or if they have an auto-immune disease. And while prevailing pseudo-science and debunked studies pushed by anti-vaxxers have a small percentage of parents thinking otherwise, vaccinations are safe for the vast majority of the public.

"[Vaccines] protect us and our kids against some of the horrible, untreatable diseases that our parents and grandparents feared," Sherer tells Romper. "We no longer see people suffering from polio, diptheria, and other diseases that used to be commonplace and deadly. Vaccines are the most powerful technological innovation in medicine that we have seen in our lifetime."

Still, bringing your child to the doctor for a shot is difficult. What parents need aren't anti-science, faux-solutions, like delayed vaccination schedules (delayed schedules put children at risk of becoming sick, according to the CDC), but help managing these often difficult, but necessary, doctor visits. So with that in mind, here's how to help make it easier for your kids to receive these incredibly important immunizations:

Understand Vaccines

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Understanding something can be a big step towards decreasing fear. While you may not be able to explain vaccines to your infant, learning about them yourself can help lessen your anxiety. Then, when your child is older, you can help explain the necessity of these vaccines in an age-appropriate way.

A vaccine is "a substance that resembles part of a disease," Sherer says, but it is not the disease itself. "Most vaccines are made up of surface proteins of viruses or bacteria that are de-activated so they are not able to actually cause disease," Sherer says, and explains that vaccines are given to a person "in order to stimulate the immune system to create antibodies that will create immunity to that disease."

Understanding — and feeling good about — why you're taking your kids through this potentially painful experience can arm you with the courage you need to help them have courage.

Explain Vaccines To Your Kids

"Talk about the benefits of shots ('I can't wait to protect you from diseases through this shot') instead of focusing on the pain or your anxiety (You have to get so many shots I hope it doesn't hurt too much)," Sherer says.

Putting shots in a positive light, and by using kid-friendly language, will help them feel better about the experience.

Set A Good Example

"I’ve noticed, both through parenting and my own pediatrics practice, that the kids really look to the parents to figure out how to react to vaccines," Sherer says. "When parents approach it as matter of fact — 'You are going to get some shots today, they will hurt for a few minutes, then you will be protected from getting sick and we can go out to lunch/get a sticker/prize/ice cream' — the experience is usually much more positive than if a parent approaches it with anxiety or lots of emotion."

Our children look to us for guidance on how to navigate certain scenarios, and they will pick up on how we respond to a specific situation. Sherer suggests parents approach immunizations the same way they would approach day care or pre-K drop off. The kid picks up on that and reacts accordingly. "Be honest and matter of fact about vaccines," she says. "They do hurt, and it’s important to be honest with kids about that, but I think it’s often more the anxiety than the pain that can make the experience traumatic."

Schedule A Well-Timed Feed

For babies who are too little to even notice a screen, Shere suggests parents try feeding them during the shots.

"For infants, nursing or taking a bottle can really help," she says.

Use Rewards

Whether it's a sticker or sucker provided by your child's pediatrician, or a special outing once the doctor's visit is over, rewarding your child for being brave can help them focus on the light at the end of the tunnel.

Once the shot is over, instead of dwelling on how bad it was, move on to the "fun thing" you've promised them.

Use Pain-Reducing Devices

"There are several devices that seem to decrease pain from the actual needle stick, such as the buzzy bee and the shot blocker," Sherer says. "These are devices meant to be held up to the skin to produce a tactile sensation — such as cold, vibration, or pressure — to 'confuse' the neural pathways that process pain."

Sherer says these devices can work "quite well" for decreasing pain, in "the same way it feels god to rub your foot after you step on one of your kid's legos."

Utilize Distraction

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"Distraction techniques work wonders," Sherer says. "I’m a big fan of screen time for shots [for older kids]." Sherer says there have been moments when, if a child is watching a movie or playing on a tablet, they don't even notice when they've been given the shot.

"Distraction from a toy, or through blowing bubbles or on a pinwheel or even fake-coughing, can also help," she says.

Use Pain-Reducing Creams

If your kid has an especially hard time getting shots, talk to your medical provider about potential medical options. "I have a few school age and teen patients with extreme fears of vaccines who use a prescription numbing cream called EMLA applied to the skin about 30 minutes prior to the vaccine who find that this also really helps with the discomfort," Sherer says.

It is important, however, that parents avoiding giving their child Tylenol prior to their vaccinations. "Pediatricians used to routinely recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol) prior to vaccines to help prevent soreness after vaccination," Sherer explains. "However, a series of studies have come out showing that acetaminophen could actually decrease the immune response to the vaccines." In other words, it could make it less likely that the vaccine works.

Let Them Cry

"Most kids cry after getting vaccines, and that's OK," Sherer says. "Injections do hurt, and it's healthy and normal for your kids to express hurt through tears. So if your kid cries after a vaccine, congratulate yourself for raising an emotionally healthy and expressive child."

Sherer says it isn't the kids who cry after their shots that seh worries about. Instead, it's the children who cry in anticipation of the shot. "This is caused by the anxiety of the procedure, not the injection itself," she explains. "The more anxious we are, the more heightened our experience of pain and trauma is going to be with the actual vaccine. It's important for us to avoid medical trauma for our kids from when they are very young by explaining things as they are happening in a matter-of-fact way, and if we as parents feel anxious about them, trying to shield our kids from our own anxieties."

Play Doctor

Play and pretend games are how children process the world around them. "If your kid is already afraid of the doctor or vaccines, spend a lot of time at home talking about the doctor, playing doctor, giving each other 'shots,'" Sherer says. "Allow the child to come along to your own doctor's appointments, or the veterinary appointments to see you (or the cat) get shots and talk about what is happening and how you and Kitty are coping."

Sherer suggests parents put on an episode of Daniel Tiger that chronicles Daniel's trip to the doctor, which can help your child process what is about to happen.

Count The Shots & Celebrate

As Sherer explains, the exact dosage and scheduling of the vaccines, including the number of doses, is a positive advance in medical science. "I often hear people talk of the number of antigens per vaccine," she says. "The reality is that each vaccine actually has less antigens than [they did] 20 years ago, but the result is that the vaccines require more doses to gain immunity."

So, yes, at some well-visits your child will receive multiple shots. In fact, sometimes your child will receive up to five shots per doctor's visit. And you know what little kids like doing? Counting to five. Whether it's via song, finger games, or a sticker chart, kids like celebrating getting one, two, three, four, and five wow, sweetie, five — shots!

Don't Make It A Punishment

"I have also seen parents do some things that I think make the experience much more potentially traumatizing to their kids," Sherer says. "Avoid using shots as a punishment or threats (i.e. if you don't sit quietly the doctor will give you a shot!)."

Recognize Your Own Needle Fears

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Sherer says it's common for parents to have their own personal fear of needles, so they need to be cognizant of the fact that their reaction can impact their child's experience.

"I have some parents who make their spouse/partner come with the kid to get the shots because they know enough about themselves to realize they're not the right parent for this particular role," she says. "That may not be possible for every family, though. Mental health professionals can be exceptionally helpful in this role to help you learn cope with your fear of needles."

Get Vaccinated Yourself

To keep your kids safe, to keep yourself safe, to protect tiny babies who can't get their own vaccines yet, to shield people with auto-immune disorders and other issues that prevent them from being vaccinated, and to set a good example for your children, get vaccinated. Talk to your medical provider about what you should get, whether it's a flu shot, a booster, or vaccinations recommended during pregnancy.

"Making sure you are up-to-date with your own vaccines is one of the most powerful way for you to protect your kids," Sherer says. "As adults, we are constantly being exposed to diseases — at the supermarkets, work, restaurant, day care pickup, etc. It's important to prevent bringing those viruses and bacteria home to our kids. Make sure you get your annual flu vaccine to protect both yourself and your kid, and that you're up-to-date on your routine vaccines."