Study: How children cope with getting vaccinations depends on parents

TORONTO — Hoping that next round of vaccinations for your child comes with fewer tears? How you interact with your little ones when they’re getting their shots can weigh heavily on how painful the injections are for them, a new study finds.

Researchers from York University in Canada sought to examine how parent-child interactions affect the child while getting immunization shots at the doctor’s office. They say the amount of distress and pain children feel during the process is directly affected by how well their parents help them cope before and during the shot.

Child receiving a vaccination
How you interact with your little ones when they’re getting their shots can weigh heavily on how painful vaccinations are for them, a new study finds.

The research team studied a cohort of 548 children from the university’s OUCH (Opportunities to Understand Childhood Hurt) Lab who had been followed and observed during preschool and/or infant vaccinations. They hoped to find the best way to predict which children would express the most pain when getting their shots. The authors evaluated different expressions of pain, such as grimacing, leg activity, or crying, and then observed what the child and the parent said to each other when coping with the pain of injection.

The results showed that children are adept at coping with the pain, but they need their parents to support their coping throughout the vaccination process.

“When children were distressed prior to the needle, that made them feel more pain after the needle,” says the study’s senior author Professor Rebecca Pillai Riddell in a York media release.

Some of the behaviors that helped children cope with the pain included telling the child to breathe deeply, as well as providing distractions, such as talking about their plans after the vaccination. Showing them something to divert their attention, such as a smartphone, also helped.

Still, the researchers warned that there are many behaviors that certain conversation intended to support coping can actually cause more pain and distress.

“Telling kids that ‘it’s ok, it’s going to be fine’ over and over again actually makes children feel anxious. Parents only say things are ‘okay’ when things are not ok. Ensuring you don’t criticize a child, such as saying: ‘strong girls don’t cry’, ‘big boys don’t do that’ is important. Also, don’t apologize to a child by saying things like: ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you,’ is also key,” says Pillai Riddell. “These are all distress-promoting behaviours and increase pain and distress.”

The researchers say that a parent’s interactions not only play a role in the child’s reaction to the shot being administered at the time being, but also to future immunizations as well.

“People who have negative reactions with doctors when they are young, may avoid preventative care in the future. If you didn’t like a needle when you were five, that can stick with you,” says Pillai Riddell.

The full study was published in the journal Pain.

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