Nobody likes getting a vaccination—but as adults, we know a thing or two about how to grin and bear it. Your four year-old? Not so much. Here, a handy guide on how to prepare kids for vaccinations, so hopefully the whole ordeal will be a little less stressful for everyone involved.
The case for preparing kids for vaccines
Vaccines can create major drama in the doctor’s office, especially for younger children who are often uncomfortable with even the most painless aspects of the experience. (Do you want to touch the stethoscope? It won’t hurt you…) As such, many parents of little kids choose to go the way of the surprise attack—understandably, no caretaker relishes the idea of wrestling a five year-old the entire way to the doctor, simply because they were warned in advance that there will be a vaccination. However, Doctor Jarrett Patton—board-certified pediatrician, and best-selling author of Whose Bad @$$ Kids Are Those?—says it is best for parents to be upfront with their children in terms of what to expect. In fact, he reports that, “in practice, parents who show up to a vaccine appointment with 'the element of surprise' don't have the best outcomes, as kids tend to be overly fearful and get upset easily.” In other words, this seemingly clever strategy can bring about the very thing you’re hoping to avoid.
Indeed, no matter how tempting it may be to tell a lie of omission, the whole process will likely go a lot more smoothly if you are honest with your child and prepare them for the experience ahead of time. After all, nobody likes being duped—and no matter how tiny your tot, it won’t be long before they’ve got your number. Bottom line: A little pre-appointment prep work encourages trust and helps children build important coping skills, so they can keep their cool when vaccination time rolls around.
How to prepare kids for vaccines
Now that we ruined your day with good advice, allow us to make it better. Although it’s not advisable to trick kids about upcoming shots, the aforementioned prep work is both easy to accomplish and empowering for your child. Dr. Patton recommends that parents role play with their children in order to make vaccine appointments less scary—and possibly even fun: “As a parent, you can play the role of the doctor or nurse, and then allow the child to play that role while you are the patient. This way, you can demonstrate how simple and straightforward an appointment can be, even if it ends with a vaccination. You also get to demonstrate how to be the 'perfect' patient affirming a variety of emotions your child may have.” That’s right, pull out the pretend doctor’s kit for some one-on-one play and your kid will feel like a pro on appointment day.
That said, role play might not be enough to get your kid completely on board once the needle makes an appearance—but that’s just par for the course. If your child starts to panic a little as the nerve-wracking moment approaches, you can choose to remind them of the lessons they’ve learned from pretend play—or simply resort to distraction, which works wonders when needle fear is a factor. Dr. Patton also reminds parents that it’s best to encourage kids to be open about their feelings, as this eases apprehension at appointment time. Asking questions, he says, is an excellent way to get the conversation started:
“If they are worried about the shots ask if they remember the last time they got a shot. Did it hurt a little or a lot? Did you need to go to the hospital after the shot or were you fine? Ask questions that get to the root of their apprehension and help them understand that it is something they have done before (and will do again.)”
Note: Older children (i.e., the age group currently eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine) can also experience needle fear, but parents should be able to help them through it by emphasizing the benefits of being fully vaccinated during pandemic times, along with distraction on the day of the appointment.
How to explain vaccines to children
“Mom, why does the doctor have to stick a needle in my arm?” It’s a fair question that deserves a good answer, lest your child be left wondering whether the pediatrician is simply just a sadist. When it comes to explaining vaccines, Dr. Patton suggests using plain, simple language and drawing a comparison to a concept your child can understand. (Example: “Just like we wash our hands to keep germs from making us sick, vaccines help our bodies fight against germs in other ways to keep us healthy.”) Fortunately, this approach will come pretty easily to most parents, since we’ve been doing some version of it ever since face masks and social distancing became a part of our daily lives.
For older children, feel free to go more in depth and have a conversation about how vaccines work to protect individuals as well as the broader community—you might both learn something in the process. Plus, the Covid-19 vaccine won’t be too hard a sell for kids who are old enough to understand that it’s paving a way back to normal life.
How to prepare kids for the Covid-19 vaccine
In terms of helping a child mentally prepare for an upcoming vaccine, the above advice is all you really need to know. However, there are some practical things to keep in mind when it comes to the Covid-19 vaccine in particular.
According to pediatric intensivist Dr. Allan Greissman of Pediatric Critical Care of South Florida, it’s important to ensure your child is healthy when the Covid-19 vaccine is administered—so if your kid is sick with some other bug, the expert says it’s best to delay the appointment until all symptoms have resolved. Additionally, Dr. Greissman recommends that parents avoid giving their children “any type of anti-inflammatories...prior to the vaccine, so the body has the ability to mount a full immune response.” Tylenol, Motrin, Aleve and Advil are among the medicines that kids should steer clear of before receiving their Covid-19 shot. His last word of advice? Give your child a big, nutritious meal before vaccination day. (Done, done and done.)