Making Vaccines Less Stressful: Tips to Comfort Babies and Toddlers Before, During and After Vaccinations

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Doctor giving patient a shot No one loves the pinch of a needle or getting blood drawn, and it can be especially scary for babies and toddlers who don’t understand what’s happening or why – which can make the whole experience more stressful for parents and caregivers!

While they may not be much fun in the moment, vaccinations are a critical step in keeping your child safe and healthy. To make the experience less stressful, follow these tips for when supporting babies and toddlers during and after their vaccines.

As you prepare, remember:

  • Your comfort level with the vaccine experience may influence how your child reacts. (e.g., If you are apprehensive, your baby will be too.)
  • Use age-appropriate strategies – including distraction and comfort positioning – to help your child relax and feel safe.
  • When possible, schedule vaccination appointments for a time that’s best for your child – e.g., first thing in the morning if that’s when they’re happiest, or late in the day when they can go home and rest afterwards.
  • Never hesitate to talk to your child’s healthcare team about any questions you have, or your child’s specific needs.

Prepare children for vaccines according to their age and development

While infants respond to the emotions and actions of their caregivers and there is less you can do to prepare them in a way they’ll understand, toddlers and preschoolers are growing more curious and may begin to ask questions.

For toddlers or preschoolers, tell them about their vaccine a day or two before the visit. While your child may become mad or upset upon hearing this information, it’s still important for most children to be prepared for this experience. Remind them that you will be with them the whole time and that they are safe.

Validate their concerns. Let them know it is OK to feel upset and allow them to pick out something special to bring with them to the appointment. Depending on their age/maturity, one way to prepare your child is to provide honest, simple information about the vaccine in language they can understand. If the child is worried the vaccine will hurt, tell them it might feel like a pinch or a poke, but their job is to try to be as still as a statue.

Playing with doctor kits is one way for children to work out their feelings or anxieties related to medical experiences. You may want to consider adding items such as BAND-AIDS®, cotton balls, tape, gauze, etc. Visit Medical Play for more information on medical play.

This interactive, child-friendly learning resource can also help prepare your child for getting a vaccine.

How can I comfort my baby during vaccines?

Comfort positioning

Comfort positions during vaccinations can help children feel safe and secure while remaining as upright as possible.

Being held in the arms of a caregiver can help create a more normal experience, especially for infants. Wrapping your baby’s upper body in a blanket while cradling them in your arms helps them feel safe but still allows the clinician to reach their thigh to administer the vaccines.

For toddlers, explain to your child that you are giving them a big hug to help remind their bodies to hold still, and their job is to hug you back. One effective position for a toddler is sitting on a caregiver’s lap, chest to chest. This is a good position for vaccines that go into the arm or leg. Another lap position is back to chest. This helps prevent the child from kicking or wiggling. See comfort positioning during procedures for pictures on techniques you can use.

Distraction techniques for immunizations

In addition to comfort positioning, distraction techniques can be used to help your child focus on something more pleasant during the short time it takes to be vaccinated.

Bring an item that typically comforts or distracts your child (a favorite stuffed animal, blanket, pacifier, toy that makes noise or lights up, or a seek-and-find book).

Depending on your child’s age/maturity, other comfort and distraction techniques include:

  • Breastfeeding
  • Teething toys or rings
  • Speaking in a soft, calm voice
  • Listening to music; singing or humming
  • Reading a book together
  • Using the room to play ‘I spy”
  • Hugging a comfort item
  • Watching a video on your phone or iPad

While some children like to look away during immunization, others will choose to watch. Either way is appropriate. If your child prefers to watch, allow them to do so because it will build trust and increase their sense of control over the situation.

Pain management after vaccines

Preparation, distraction techniques and comfort positioning combined not only reduce fear and anxiety, but pain as well. For more pain management options, talk to your child’s healthcare team.

Soothing your baby or young child after injections

Consider doing the following:

  • Praising your child for specific behaviors like holding still or taking big breaths
  • Helping your child identify how they are feeling and validate their emotions
  • Encouraging your child to return to their routine, to promote a sense of normalcy

Keep your child healthy – do not put off vaccines

Immunizations are essential to protect young lives, and researchers around the world have repeatedly proven that vaccines are safe and effective. Most schools and daycares require children to be vaccinated against common childhood diseases.

You can also download and print this article with a focus on COVID-19 vaccinations.

View the resources below to learn more about vaccines and what to consider when making decisions for your child’s health.

Melanie Hoynoski, CCLS, CTRS, and Allison Tappon, MS, CCLS, are Child Life Clinical Experts in the Child Life, Education and Creative Arts Therapy Department at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

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