Here's how to prep kids for stress-free vaccinations, say experts: 'They may not love it, and that's OK'

A health care worker gives a shot into the upper arm of a young girl sitting on a table and looking at the needle.
Vaccines can seem scary to kids, but experts say that with a bit of planning, parents can eliminate some of the worry and stress kids often feel about shot appointments. (Photo: Getty Creative) (LWA/Dann Tardif via Getty Images)

Mom of two Jennifer Pavelchak has perfected using different methods to calm her kids' worries about vaccines. For her 4-year-old daughter, Drew, what works best is queueing up an episode of Paw Patrol on her phone to serve as a distraction. For 2-year-old Dylan, however, Pavelchak, who lives in New York, says any momentary fear and anxiety surrounding a shot is quickly alleviated with a lollipop and a cute puppy picture.

Still, all baby animals and sweet bribes aside, it can be hard to explain to young children why something that hurts is necessary.

"For now I tell [my daughter] the flu shot helps keep her healthy and fights off bad germs," Pavelchak tells Yahoo Life. "I also express how brave she is and how her shot helps keep her family and friends at school safe too."

With flu season well under way and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic still affecting the U.S., it's common for parents to ask how to help kids handle the anxiety that may come with vaccinations like the flu shot or the COVID-19 vaccine, which was recently approved for children between the ages of 5 and 11, in addition to older kids, ages 12-17, who have been eligible for the vaccine for several months.

Video: How to make the COVID-19 vaccination process easier for children

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children 6 months and older receive a flu vaccination and that kids who qualify to receive a COVID-19 vaccine also do so.

"For the COVID-19 vaccine, children will get two shots at least 21 days apart, similar to adults," Dr. Mona Amin, a board certified general pediatrician and founder of PedsDocTalk explains. "However, doses for [kids ages] 5-11 is 10 micrograms, which is a third of the dose for adults."

Amin says children can receive both the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu shot on the same day, similar to the recommendation for adults.

There are two main methods parents can choose from to get their children vaccinated against the flu: an injection or a nasal mist.

"This year for the 2021-2022 influenza season, there are two types of vaccines available," says Amy Verlsteffen, a nurse practitioner at TytoCare, an online urgent care company. "The difference between the two forms of the vaccine is that the shot is an injection made of inactivated — or dead — particles of the virus and the nasal spray is a live virus that has been altered so it replicates in the nose but doesn't cause the disease."

Before you head to the pharmacy for flu shots or go in for routine vaccinations at your child's next checkup, learn from Yahoo Life's recent discussions with pediatricians and child therapists, who provide helpful information and tricks for how to make the vaccine experience easier for kids who may be nervous about needles.

Talk about the visit beforehand

Amin suggests having a conversation with your child before arriving at the doctor's office or pharmacy where they're scheduled to receive a shot.

"If a parent has an anxious child, they should prepare their child by talking to them beforehand about what will happen and answer any questions they might have," Amin explains.

Pavelchak has found this to be helpful with her own children.

"Leading up to my children's doctors appointments, I always make sure to be very vocal about where we're going," the New York mom says. "The last thing I want is to surprise them when we get to the parking lot or walk into a doctor's office, so we talk openly about what will happen: if it's just a checkup, if they might get a shot or if they have to go to get their nose tickled, which is how we describe a COVID test."

Be clear about what they can expect

Amin says part of kids' anxiety surrounding shots comes from fear of the unknown. The creator of The New Mom's Survival Guide online course says many children don't understand why they are getting a shot, which can lead to worries that may be alleviated by simply explaining to the child what will happen in terms they understand.

Amin also shares her go-to script for explaining to a child why they are getting a shot and how it will help them.

"Tell them we keep ourselves healthy from germs by washing our hands and covering our mouth and nose when we sneeze, and vaccines also help us stay healthy," she says. "Some germs can make us sick and vaccines help by teaching our body how to fight these germs when our body sees them."

"Vaccines are like little messengers that tell our body to fight the bad germs to keep us healthy," Amin continues. "And, we need many different types of vaccines because there are many different germs out there that we want to stay protected against."

To make your child even more familiar with and understanding of the vaccine process, Amin suggests roleplaying — a simple practice that can get your child more comfortable with the idea of going to the doctor's office.

"Role playing can be hugely beneficial in younger children at home before the visit," says Amin, who suggests reenacting things like how a shot might be administered by giving an imaginary shot to a stuffed animal. "Parents should simply explain to their child what's going to happen. They may not love it, and that's OK."

If role playing isn't for your child, Amin suggests watching television shows like Season 2, Episode 2 of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, where Daniel Tiger creates a book about his doctor to calm his nerves before his checkup, or Season 4, Episode 6 of CoComelon, where a character's mom visits the melon patch to explain how she keeps kids healthy in her job as a doctor.

Acknowledge how your child is feeling during the appointment

Once you've done the prep work and are headed into the doctor's office, keep the lines of communication with your child open.

"When in the office, it truly helps to verbalize what's happening as it's happening," says Amin. "Verbalization is a great underutilized tool."

"For example," Amin explains, "say 'I see that you're upset,' or 'I see that you're scared, but we'll get through this together,' or 'I'm going to hold your hand now.'"

As a pediatrician, Amin has a strategy she uses when she recognizes a child is anxious about getting a shot: She gets on their level and tries to foster a sense of comfort by ensuring to the child that they are being brave and their caretakers will be with them the entire time.

Talk about the experience when it's over

Just because your child has received a vaccine doesn't mean the conversation stops there. Amin reminds parents to talk to kids about what happened during the appointment and how they feel about it.

"It's important afterwards that parents talk to their children about the experience," she explains. "What made them sad? What should they be proud of? Building resiliency after they accomplish something they are afraid of is important because that's how we prepare them for the next time."

For some parents, it can be helpful to provide a small reward when the appointment is finished to lighten the mood.

Jaime Maser Berman, a mom of three, keeps colorful bandages and lollipops on hand to help her kids bounce back.

"Shot, neon orange Band-Aid, small cry, distracted by said Band-Aid,” Berman says of the process for taking her 1-year-old to vaccine appointments. "My 3 and 5-year-olds winced and cried with the flu shot, picked their lollipops and had stopped crying by the time we were in the car and car seats buckled up."

At the end of the day, parents like Maser Berman feel a few tears are a small price to pay for their kids' health.

"Of course I never want to see my kids hurt or in pain — what parent does?," Maser Berman says. "But the two seconds of wincing the flu shot temporarily causes is a small price to pay, in my humble opinion, for their health and my peace of mind that they're better equipped for the onslaught of flu and cold season."

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