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Pediatricians offer their tips for soothing a child's fears about getting a shot.
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updated 7/31/2012 8:23:23 AM ET 2012-07-31T12:23:23

Many parents know that a needle is in their kid’s future -- either shots or a blood draw. And kids know it, too.

The mere mention of a needle or, in some cases, simply walking into a doctor’s office, incites panic. This typically involves screaming, kicking, crying and hyperventilating while a nurse or doctor struggles to keep the child still. But, this doesn’t have to be the case.

As schools start to reopen, children fill pediatricians’ offices for last-minute shots and physicals, leaving loads of parents again faced with the dilemma of how to manage the child’s terror.

So, with the help of Detroit pediatrician Dr. Nakia Williams and child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Jacqueline Smith of UNC Hospitals, here are the dos and don’ts of helping a child who has a fear of needles.

Don’t lie. If you say it won't hurt and it does, they certainly won't believe you next time. Smith agrees. “If your child doesn’t trust you because you said it didn’t hurt, good luck trying to get them to get their next set of shots,” she says. Instead, let them know that it will hurt, only for a short period of time, and that they will be okay afterward.

Do stay calm and composed (no matter how upset you really are). Children of all ages will look to his or her parents for cues on how to react. If mom or dad is panicking, crying or pacing the room, the child will continue to panic as well.

Don’t threaten kids with shots as a means of discipline. A line often overheard: “If you don't behave, the doctor’s going to give you a needle,” says the parent. One, this creates a fear if there wasn’t one before. Two, it immediately makes getting a shot a bad thing and something they should never want. Getting shots or stuck with a needle is stressful enough without making something necessary into a punishment.

Do prepare them. “When kids know what’s going on and what to expect, they generally do better,” says Smith. “Truthfully answering any questions they have can be very helpful.” Smith says children should be as comfortable as possible, including recently fed and toileted or in a recently changed diaper.

Don’t leave the room. A parent who has his or her own fear of needles, or an inability to cope with seeing their child cry, may opt to leave the child alone in the room with the doctor or nurse. But, Williams prefers that parents stay. “The parent is usually the first person the child looks for after the shots are over,” she says. And, Smith adds that leaving the child sends a message that the parents don’t care or that they can’t help him or her through scary times.

Do comfort them. The parent needs to remember that they know their child best, including how to comfort him or her. Try holding the child in a tight embrace, rubbing their backs or keeping eye contact throughout the encounter. Breastfeeding immediately after is also a helpful soothing mechanism for babies. Make sure to respect the child’s fear and don’t belittle it. Avoid implying the child should just “suck it up.”

Williams says effective comforting skills has benefits lasting far beyond the one doctor or hospital visit. “After a parent comforts a child, I think their bond tends to grow because the child knows who he or she can turn to in times of need,” she says.

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Do use distractions. Several studies show that distractions -- such as having the child blow bubbles or into pinwheels -- can decrease the pain associated with needles. For babies, sucking on a pacifier that’s been dipped into a sugary liquid made of sucrose is an effective pain reliever.

Don’t be afraid to advocate. Talk with the pediatrician beforehand about ways you can tag team and calm the child’s fears. Request that the doctor or nurse use a topical cream to numb the skin before the shot or blood draw (if they provide it). Parents can also request the smallest needle, or that the most painful shot is given last.

However, sometimes the fear is so great that no tactics work, the child refuses to even go near the doctor’s office, and parents may need to consider the help of a counselor to deal with the child’s phobia.

Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for theGrio.com (NBC News). Dr. Ty is also a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty.

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