Preparing for a positive experience

Vaccines can cause some pain and anxiety for children of all ages. This pain may cause your child to develop a fear of needles or other medical procedures. Fortunately, there are many strategies that can be used before and during the immunization appointment to help reduce pain and anxiety. Use these tips for a more positive immunization experience for you and your child.

Tip #1: Prepare your child before the visit 

Toddlers and young children:

In general, toddlers and young children over 2 years of age should be informed about the vaccine shortly before the clinic visit or appointment. When you are discussing the vaccine with your child:

DO:

  • Try to be calm even though you may be nervous about your child's immunizations. Your child is very sensitive to your emotions. 
  • Speak in an even, soft tone of voice.
  • Answer questions honestly, and choose words that lessen anxiety - for example, "you may feel pressure, squeezing, or poking", instead of words like "pain, hurt, or sting."
  • You can say, "You need the vaccine to stay healthy. The medicine will be put in your arm with a needle. You will feel a quick poke."

DO NOT:

  • Use words that focus the child's attention on the needle, such as "It will be over soon and you will be okay."
  • Give false reassurance, such as "It won't hurt." See "do" section above for suggested answers to the question, "Will it hurt?"
  • Apologize - for example, "I am really sorry you have to go through this."

Why it works:

Your child is sensitive to your language and tone. If you speak positively about vaccines, your child is more likely to feel positive about it as well.

Consider using numbing creams and patches:

  • These products ease the feeling of pain by blocking pain receptors in the skin, and should be applied about one hour before the appointment. These can be purchased without a prescription from most pharmacies.

  • Supervise your child after you apply the product so that they don't accidentally eat the cream or patch.

  •  For specific information on where to apply numbing creams or patches, ask your health care provider. You can find more information about numbing creams and patches here

Tip #2: Comfort your child at the appointment

Use these tips to comfort your child at the appointment.

Children of all ages:

Comforting restraint:

Cuddle your baby or child firmly in your lap in a seated position. 

Why it works:

Being held close to you calms your child and helps keep legs and arms still so vaccines can be given safely. Sitting upright helps children feel more secure and in control. Ask the health care provider for examples of upright positioning. 

Distraction:

Use bubbles, a pinwheel or a squeaky, light-up or musical toy to distract your child immediately before and during the vaccination. Ask older children questions about something they are excited about. Older children can also use books, listen to music, or play video games to distract themselves. 

Why it works:

Research shows that the part of the brain that processes pain is less active when children are distracted during immunizations. 

Breastfeed to minimize vaccination pain 

Babies:

Breastfed babies:

Nurse your baby before, during, and after the immunization to provide comfort and distract them from the injection. Research shows that this is safe and will not cause the baby to associate breastfeeding with pain.

Why it works:

Breastfeeding comforts your baby with your presence. Sucking and the sweet taste of breast milk distract your baby. Breast milk also contains natural calming substances. 

Formula-fed babies:

A sucrose solution can be given immediately before the immunization for babies up to and including 12 months of age, to minimize pain and discomfort. Babies receiving the oral rotavirus vaccine (given at 2 and 4 months of age) do not need the sucrose solution because the vaccine contains sucrose and has the same effect as the sucrose solution.

You can prepare a sucrose solution at home and bring it with you to your child's immunization appointment. Health Canada recommends that all water given to infants be sterilized.

To prepare the sucrose solution:

  • Bring cold tap water to a rolling boil for at least 2 minutes.
  • Dissolve 1 teaspoon of sugar in 10 ml (2 teaspoons) of the boiled water in a sterile sealable container.
  • Store the sucrose solution in the refrigerator prior to your child's appointment. The solution should be used within 24 hours.

At the appointment, give 2 ml of the sucrose solution to your baby with a cup, spoon or syringe 1-2 minutes before the immunization and discard the unused portion.

Do not use sugar at home to calm upset or crying babies.

Why it works: 

Research shows that this sweet tasting solution, given 1-2 minutes before a medical procedure, causes the release of natural pain reducing chemicals in the brain. 

Children 3 years of age and older:

Deep breathing:

Have your child focus on blowing out during the vaccine injection. Ask your child to:

  • Blow bubbles
  • Blow out a pretend candle
  • Blow a pinwheel or party blower

Why it works:

Deep breathing triggers the body to relax its stress response. It also serves as a distraction.