When it comes time for vaccinations, many children dread or fear the visit to the doctor. “The needle sticks and shots that make-up the recommended vaccinations can cause children significant distress or anxiety,” says Stanley Grogg, DO, an osteopathic pediatrician from Tulsa, Okla. “Needlephobia is certainly not uncommon for young children.”
Needlephobia, also known as belonephobia, is defined as a fear of sharp objects such as pins or needles.
“Considering that an average of 20 shots are given to a baby or toddler by the time they reach two years of age, anxiety is not completely unwarranted,” explains Dr. Grogg. “Parents can help their children by anticipating their distress and following a few simple steps.”
For children of any age, parents can apply a topical anesthetic on the area that will be injected, prior to the doctor visit. An anesthetic such as LMX 5% cream can be purchased over-the-counter and will numb the designated area. Also, acetaminophen or similar pain relievers can be offered to the child before the visit.
If the child is an infant, Dr. Grogg suggests that parents hold them during the injection. A few comforting words might help the child feel at ease. Also, bring a familiar object from home for the infant. A blanket or favorite stuffed animal will serve as an encouraging distraction from the pain. Lastly, it is extremely important that the parent remain calm during the process. Babies can detect emotions from people around them, particularly their parents. If the parent is feeling anxious or fearful, a newborn or toddler will immediately sense this and respond accordingly.
While needlephobia in an infant can be a reaction to the parental anxiety, needlephobia in a young child has two possible causes. This phobia can occur due to a fear that has been confirmed by a parent, friend or other adult figure.
“For example, if the child watched a movie involving a painful needle procedure, he or she may sustain an immense fear of needles,” explains Dr. Grogg.
The other common cause of needlephobia is a negative experience. If the child suffered a prior painful procedure involving a needle, he or she may experience needlephobia.
Once the child is able to speak, parents should change their course of action before, during and after the doctor visit. Dr. Grogg suggests:
Be honest with your child. Warn the child that he or she will receive a shot and that it will hurt. Children that know that they are going to get a shot generally do much better than children who are not told in advance. To prevent weeks of obsessive worrying, it is best to inform the child on the day of the appointment. Similarly, when describing that the shot will hurt, compare the prick to a mosquito bite. In this manner, stress the short time that it will sting. While some shots hurt more than others, children seldom recognize the differences and indicating this will only give them added anxiety.
Comfort your child. Doctors’ offices often frighten children, especially those located within a hospital. Reassure your child that he or she is safe and that the office staff are there to keep them healthy. Additionally, try to keep him or her preoccupied with a different topic rather than the impending shot. Reading aloud, playing or watching television are great activities for a waiting room. Seconds before the injection, try to distract your child. For example, have him or her whistle, blow, or count aloud.
Talk to your child after the visit. If your child behaved well during the shot, tell him or her. Reinforce good behavior at the doctor’s office. Also, answer any unanswered questions that he or she may have about the process. Finally, ask if the shot hurt as much as he or she had anticipated.
“Typically, a child will say that the injection did not hurt as badly as they were expecting,” explains Dr. Grogg. “ And you can remind them of this the next time they need a shot.”