Five ways to help your child have a better immunization experience

November 14, 2019

My little guy was born a few weeks early and under 5 lbs so he had to stay in the NICU until he could regulate his blood sugar and temperature. This meant he had to get needles for the intravenous treatment of his glucose, needles to test his blood sugar several times a day  (heel-prick), and needles to draw blood for jaundice tests. After he came home we took him to get his blood tested regularly for the first month and then it was time to get his first immunizations and his flu shot. That is a lot of needles! And needles can hurt.

When you follow the recommended immunization schedule from infancy to six years, your child will get needles regularly. Children and babies with illnesses or complications may get needles more often with bloodwork or medication. And this year FluMist is not available in Canada so all flu vaccinations will be given by needle.

Sometimes kids develop a fear of needles (needle phobia) which can carry over into adulthood. This can lead to delaying or avoiding needles. So what can you do to help your child have a better experience when getting needles?

Stay calm

Needles can be stressful for parents and caregivers. Your child is very tuned in to your emotions and if you are stressed, tense or afraid, they will feel anxious as well. Stay calm, take deep belly breaths, act normally and use a soft and positive tone of voice.

Mom and daughter at doctor

Be honest and plan ahead

For older kids, it’s not helpful to tell them that the needle will not hurt. Tell them ahead of time (but not too far ahead) about their upcoming vaccination, what the needle is for and how it will feel. Use words like “quick poke, squeeze or pinch” and avoid words like “hurt, sting or pain.” When it is time for the needle, use words like “Ready?” or “Here we go!” and avoid reassuring (e.g., “It’ll be over soon” and “You’re OK”). Let them choose toys or activities to do during the needle. Have something planned after their appointment, like getting their favourite lunch or snack.

Feeding, holding and positioning

To help reduce stress before, during and after the needle try:

  • Skin-to-skin contact
  • Hugging, cuddling and hand-holding
  • Holding chest-to-chest (bear hug), in your lap, or face-to-face with you standing and your child upright on the table (child should not be lying down on the table during the injection)
  • Breastfeeding before, during and after the shot
  • Rubbing the skin around the injection area before and after the needle is given

A dad cuddling his infant while a nurse fills out a form


Bring or do something to distract your child that they enjoy:

  • Toys (squeaky, light-up and musical)
  • Handheld screens (for older children)
  • Talking about something fun and exciting
  • Reading their favourite book
  • Playing a game like ‘I spy’
  • Blow bubbles or an imaginary candle to encourage deep breaths

Topical anesthetics

You can buy topical anesthetics at your pharmacy and they’re safe to use on all ages including newborns. They can take 30 to 60 minutes to work so read the directions and apply accordingly before your appointment.

I used many of these strategies during my little guy’s needles. Skin-to-skin, feeding, holding, and distraction really worked for us when he was a baby, and as he gets older, I add new age-appropriate strategies to our repertoire. You can help manage the pain so your child’s needles don’t have to hurt.

Maria Simpson, Communications Specialist