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Fighting the Fear of Needles: Tips from a Former Needle-Averse Child

I had a severe fear of needles as a kid. I would scream, kick, punch, flee, hide behind exam tables, and even steal important items from my parents in an effort to stall for time. I suffered from an overwhelming and visceral fear that made the experience difficult not only for me but for everyone involved. I still feel my stomach squirm when I sit down for a shot, but I’ve grown into an adult with the courage and resolve to arrange my own vaccinations. It is possible to help your child fight their fears, and I’m here to share the strategies that my parents and I used to help me take charge of my own health.

Develop Strategies with Your Child

My biggest leaps in grappling with my fear of needles came when I decided I didn’t want to be afraid anymore and researched tips and tricks on my own. The trick that helped me was reciting the alphabet backwards—I didn’t feel a thing while doing so—but I believe the real change came from my determination to take control of my emotions and take responsibility for my body.

Involve your child in their own care. Set the clear boundary that they must get shots, but ask them to come up with their own approach for their next vaccine appointment. Explain bravery, determination, responsibility, and health so that they understand why fighting their fear of needles is important, and make sure they are invested in at least one of these values. Research with them if they are young or encourage them to research on their own if they are older. Discuss their approach beforehand to determine if it is appropriate.

Talk to your Health Care Provider

In addition to talking with your child, talk with your health care provider when trying new approaches to your child’s healthcare. Giving advance notice of your child’s fears and typical reactions will allow your health care team to provide the best support possible to your family, and they may be be familiar with advances in medical technology and practice that may make the process easier.

Get a Private Room

If possible, make an appointment with your pediatrician and have vaccines administered in an examination room instead of going to a pop-up clinic or pharmacy. Appointments provide privacy for you and your child in a moment of vulnerability, nurses who are already familiar with you and your child’s needs or who can be prepared ahead of time, and a contained area if your child decides to run away or hide.

Use Numbing Cream or Pain Relief Tools

Because children with a fear of needles are reacting to the threat of pain, preventing pain with numbing cream, vibrating ice packs like Buzzy, or tools like Shotblocker may tackle the root of the problem. Ask your doctor’s office if they offer these solutions, or bring your own. You can buy over-the-counter numbing cream at a local pharmacy, and all three products are available online. Work with your child to choose the method they are most confident in and be prepared for them to change their mind. They may still react to the expectation of pain even if that pain is blocked, and it may take several pain-free experiences for your child’s emotional response to change.

Consider Nasal Spray

The flu vaccine has a nasal spray variant that can protect your child without the use of needles. I chose the nasal spray option whenever it was available as a kid, and it kept me safe from the flu without the ordeal of getting a shot. They may not aid in permanently dealing with needle fears, but they will keep your child vaccinated against the flu in the meantime.

Nasal sprays are effective and safe, but they may not be recommended for all patients due to the fact that they use a weakened live virus as opposed to a dead one. They may not provide the same protection against certain flu strains, and the most recent CDC guidance recommends avoiding contact with severely immunocompromised persons for a week after receiving the nasal spray vaccine. Speak with your doctor to determine if nasal spray is right for your family. If so, it can greatly ease the process of vaccinating your family against the flu.

Find Distractions

Keeping your child’ mind active may keep them from feeling a quick poke. Reciting the alphabet backwards took up so much of my attention that I didn’t even notice the nurse had already administered the vaccine. Ask your child to sing, tell you a story, or tell you about their day. The key is to engage not just their attention but their thought process. The harder your child has to think, the less they can pay attention to their arm as they wait. Decide together on an appropriate distraction.

Be patient if your child abandons their plan in the examination room. Overcoming a deeply rooted fear takes mental and emotional maturity that even adults struggle with. Your child can make best use of the tools you have given them when they are ready—work now to build those tools and be there to support them as they make their health care journey.

About the Author:

Gabrielle Skerpan is a social media and blog writer for Bay Area Sitters. She is currently studying English with a Creative Writing emphasis at Hendrix College in Arkansas and expects to receive her bachelor’s degree in August.