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Ask Dr. Sears: Fear of Shots

Q. My preschooler hates going to the pediatrician because she's terrified of getting a shot. She gets herself so worked up that I can't even tell her about an appointment until right before we leave the house to go. How can I help her feel more at ease with her doctor, and get over her fear of needles?

A. Most children have some degree of needle phobia. Even adults don't like shots but we tolerate them because we know they are medically necessary. Children, on the other hand, don't fully understand that shots, while painful for a moment, will prevent serious illnesses. Here are a few ways to ease your child's immunization anxiety.

Explain the importance of shots.

Talk about what immunizations do and why they're necessary. You can say, "Your body has millions of tiny cells that travel around like little soldiers and fight germs that enter your body. Some germs could make you very sick, and that means you wouldn't be able to ride your bike or play soccer. Getting shots builds up your army of soldiers so they can better fight the germs and keep you from getting sick."

Use a numbing cream.

Ask your doctor for a prescription for a topical anesthetic cream that you can apply to the injection site (usually the front of the leg or the side of the upper arm). The cream needs time to take effect, so apply it about an hour before the scheduled vaccine. If your child gets very anxious, it can help to arrive at your appointment early. That way, you can ask the receptionist for the estimated time your child will get her shot and apply the anesthetic accordingly.

Cool it.

Applying an ice pack to the injection site a few minutes before shot time can take the sting out of shots.

Help your child relax.

Shots hurt less when the skin and muscles around the injection site are relaxed. Just before needle time, hold your child on your lap and gently massage the injection site. Immediately after the injection, distract her from the sting with the proposal of a treat. A popular one: "Now, let's get some ice cream!"

Spread out your visits.

Many times three, four, or even five shots may be required to keep your child's immunizations on schedule. Instead of putting her through them all at once, space them out over two appointments.

Go for combo vaccines.

Some of the newer vaccines are packaged in combinations that require fewer injections. Talk with your pediatrician about what's best for your child.

Finally, keep in mind that needle anxiety is contagious, so it's important to relax yourself. Don't downplay your child's fear of shots by telling her they won't hurt but do follow the advice above to make future doctor visits as painless as possible.

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