Tips for supporting a child with a needle phobia

Taking your baby to get their vaccinations is a simple process. You stick them in the car seat, drive to the doctor's office, and hold them close while they get jabbed. A few tears may fall (theirs and yours), but ultimately, it's a straightforward process.

Then your baby grows up.

Suddenly they're 4 and need their booster shots. And if you live in Ontario and happen to forget those shots (or neglect to update Public Health), your child could be suspended from school.

Most kids make a fuss about vaccinations - who can blame them? It's certainly counterintuitive to sit still while someone wants to jab you with a sharp object. But there are strategies that can help to reduce a child's anxiety, and the nurse will complete the deed without too much fuss.

Unless you have a child with a real phobia of needles. 


Signs your child may have a needle phobia

  • They refuse to talk about needles, and get very anxious when you try to bring up the subject. Reading cute kids books about getting your shots doesn't help the situation.
  • When you attempt to take them to the doctor, they cry all the way to the office, and don't let up
  • Candy bribes do not work
  • When the nurse comes into the examination room with the needle, the child goes ballistic, kicking and screaming
  • Eventually, the nurse gives up and says it's too dangerous to try to administer the shots

OK, I don't think this is the official DSM diagnosis for needle phobia, but it's the general experience we've had these past two years with my oldest daughter. We have made, in total, FIVE attempts to get her 4-6 year booster shots. Yes, you read that right. FIVE. And each of the first four times ended in frustration and tears for all those involved (except the nurses...they just seemed incredulous.)

Then.....this past week. We, finally, thankfully, blessedly, had the shots administered.

I wanted to share some of our experience on the blog to help other parents who might be going through a similar situation. You know your child is scared - but they're scared beyond what might be considered "normal." 

1) Make sure you have a good family doctor

When we were young and single, my husband and I signed up with an academic family health team. These practices are GREAT for most people - you are participating in a resident's education, you have access to a whole range of services, and you can get last-minute appointments. But then you have kids, and suddenly the whole process of being "practiced on" by new doctors is tiresome. The appointments take forever (because the resident needs to check back with the supervising doctor), and you end up seeing a different resident every time you make an appointment. Our daughter's fear was most likely exacerbated by unfamiliar faces and long wait times. So we found a new doctor! She's young and very friendly, and their offices are SUPER efficient. 

2) Use the #itdoesnthavetohurt "trifecta"

I learned about these 3 handy tips from Erica Ehm's Yummy Mummy Club, and they really changed our game plan. The first is something called an "emla patch" - it freezes the skin and makes the needle less painful (this is great for children who express fear of the pain and not necessarily fear of the actual needle.) You can get these handy patches over-the-counter at your local pharmacy. It cost me $12 for two patches.

Second, you use distraction. I love the idea of blowing bubbles, because it gets kids to breathe deeply, which we all need to do when we're anxious. We just ended up using the iPad and she got to watch her favourite show while she waited, and even during the administration.

Third, remain calm. It seems so simple, yet I could feel myself getting super anxious and tense during previous appointments with my daughter. I know she was probably feeding off of that anxiety. I was embarrassed, because I knew the nurses were frustrated and the whole office could hear the kerfuffle. But really, who cares what people think? Use your own mindfulness techniques to stay in the moment and breathe deeply.

3) Use a different adult

Kids often make more of a fuss when they're with mom or dad. Of course you want to be there for your child when they're afraid, but if they have another trusted adult in their life (e.g. Grandma) who is comfortable taking them, see if that might do the trick.

4) Don't give up

Children change constantly. What was a fear at age 4 may not be a fear at age 6. I do think this needle phobia will continue for my daughter (just because her reaction has been so severe,) but children with milder fears may forget as they grow older.

I'm so happy we are done with this round of vaccinations, and I pray that my daughter will never have health issues that require a lot of needles. But I know if that happens, I will have a lot of tips and experience to fall back on.

Do you have a child with a needle phobia (or maybe you have one yourself?) Leave a comment and tell us how you've overcome it!

*this article was in no way sponsored or endorsed by the #itodoesnthavetohurt campaign. All opinions in this piece are my own, and I'm not a medical professional. Please visit The Centre for Pediatric Pain Research to learn more