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Reducing pain, stress, and anxiety with vaccinations.

Vaccines can cause some pain, stress, and anxiety for children of all ages. Fortunately, there are many strategies that can be used before and during the appointment to help reduce pain, stress, and anxiety with vaccinations. 

Parents play an important role in supporting their children through vaccinations. Use the tips below to help your infant or young child have a more positive vaccination experience.

Prepare your child before the visit
Children are very aware of the emotions of their caregivers. Although vaccinations may be stressful for you, try to be calm during the appointment and when talking about vaccination with your child. Use a matter-of-fact, supportive approach. 
In general, toddlers and young children over 2 years of age should be informed about the vaccine shortly before the appointment. When you are discussing the vaccine with your child:
  • Try to be calm even though you may be nervous about your child's vaccinations. Your child is very sensitive to your emotions.
  • Speak in an even, soft tone of voice.
  • Answer questions honestly and choose words that lessen anxiety - for example, "you may feel pressure, squeezing, or poking", instead of words like "pain, hurt, or sting."
  • You can say, "You need the vaccine to stay healthy. The medicine will be put in your arm with a needle. You will feel a quick poke."
  • Use words that focus the child's attention on the needle, such as "It will be over soon, and you will be okay."
  • Give false reassurance, such as "It won't hurt."
  • Apologize - for example, "I am really sorry you have to go through this."
Why it works: Your child is sensitive to your language and tone. If you speak positively about vaccines, your child is more likely to feel positive about it as well.
Watch this video on how your state of mind can help your baby during vaccinations.
Consider using numbing creams and patches
These products ease the feeling of pain by blocking pain receptors in the skin and should be applied about one hour before the appointment. These can be purchased without a prescription from most pharmacies. Supervise your child after you apply the product so that they don't accidentally eat the cream or patch. It is important that the product is applied in the right area. For specific information on where to apply numbing creams or patches, ask your healthcare provider or go to this handout
Watch this video on how to use numbing cream and patches before vaccination.
Comfort your child at the appointment
Cuddle your baby or child firmly in your lap in a seated position. 
Why it works: Being held close to you calms your child and helps keep legs and arms still so vaccines can be given safely. Sitting upright helps children feel more secure and in control. Ask your health care provider how you should hold your baby or child.
Watch this video on how to hold your child during vaccination.
Use distraction
Use bubbles, a pinwheel, a squeaky, or a light-up or musical toy to distract your child immediately before and during the vaccination. Ask older children questions about something they are excited about. Older children can also use books, listen to music, or play video games to distract themselves. 
Why it works: Research shows that the part of the brain that processes pain is less active when children are distracted during vaccinations. 
Watch this video about how you can distract your baby during vaccinations. 
Breastfeed your child
Nurse your baby before, during, and after the vaccination to provide comfort and distract them from the injection. Research shows that this is safe and will not cause the baby to associate breastfeeding with pain.
Why it works: Breastfeeding comforts your baby with your presence. Sucking and the sweet taste of breast milk distract your baby. Breast milk also contains natural calming substances. 
Watch this video on breastfeeding your baby during vaccinations
Use sugar water if formula feeding
If you are formula feeding, a sucrose solution (sugar water) can be given immediately before the vaccination for babies up to and including 12 months of age, to minimize pain and discomfort. Babies receiving the oral rotavirus vaccine (given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age) do not need the sucrose solution because the vaccine contains sucrose and has the same effect as the sucrose solution.
You can prepare a sucrose solution at home and bring it with you to your child's vaccination appointment. Health Canada recommends that all water given to infants be sterilized.
To prepare the sucrose solution:
  • Bring cold tap water to a rolling boil for at least 2 minutes.
  • Dissolve 1 teaspoon of sugar in 10 ml (2 teaspoons) of the boiled water in a sterile sealable container.
  • Store the sucrose solution in the refrigerator prior to your child's appointment. The solution should be used within 24 hours.
At the appointment, give 2 ml of the sucrose solution to your baby with a cup, spoon, or syringe 1-2 minutes before the vaccination and discard the unused portion.
Do not use sugar at home to calm upset or crying babies.
Why it works:  Research shows that this sweet tasting solution, given 1-2 minutes before a medical procedure, causes the release of natural pain-reducing chemicals in the brain. 
Watch this video about giving sugar water before vaccinations.
Deep breathing (children 3 years of age and older)
Have your child focus on blowing out during the vaccine injection. Ask your child to:
  • Blow bubbles
  • Blow out a pretend candle
  • Blow a pinwheel or party blower
Why it works: Deep breathing triggers the body to relax its stress response. It also serves as a distraction. 
Check out this video on how to improve the vaccination experience for babies and young children:

Date last reviewed: 
Friday, Oct 08, 2021