The DOs and DON’Ts of Preparing Your Child for Shots

Dear Dr.Mom

My son is going to be 5 in May. At his well child visit, he’s going to have to get a bunch of shots. Is there any way I can prepare him for this? I don’t want him to be surprised at the doctor when the needles come out, but I also don’t want to scare him or get him too worked up ahead of time.



This is certainly one of those delicate balancing acts we must do as moms; to prepare our children for something like shots without letting the anticipation build up into fear. It’s natural that a child will have anxiety over receiving his vaccines, we shouldn’t ignore that feeling. However, there are several steps we can take before, during, and after those shots to help alleviate some of that fear and minimize the pain.

I’ve put together some DOs and DON’Ts for you to keep in mind when preparing your child for a well child visit that will include vaccines. It’s important to keep in mind your child’s temperament as some of these techniques may or may not work for him.

This is where your own motherly expertise will come in handy.

DO be honest: When explaining to your son that he will be going to the doctor for his check up, his first question will likely be “am I getting a shot?” Be honest and say yes. Which brings me to my next point.

DON’T give him too much time to stew on the information. Same day warning is a good enough time frame for five year olds. You don’t want your child spending the next few days obsessing and worrying about getting his shots. Anticipation is often the worst part.

DO explain his check up to him as a whole, with the shots being one aspect of his well visit. Let him know what he can expect: the doctor will listen to your heart, look in your ears, see how much you’ve grown, and yes at the end, you will get some shots.

DO explain why but keep it short. Tell him that vaccines help keep him healthy just like eating healthy foods, getting daily exercise, and getting enough sleep do. Avoid long explanations.

DON’T sugar coat it. He will undoubtedly ask if it will hurt. Be direct and matter of fact. Yes, it will hurt like a sting or a pinch but it will be over quickly.

DO BYOB: Bring your own band-aid. Here’s a chance to give your child some control over the situation. Let him choose a band-aid of his choice to use once the shots are over. He can even help put it on afterwards.

DO use distraction, especially while waiting to see the doctor. Bring books to read, coloring books, or play a game of I Spy to help pass the time.

DO use the “blow out the candle” technique. We did this for my son’s five year shots, and it worked like a charm. Have your child hold up his index finger and pretend it’s a candle. The nurse will help count down when to “blow out the candle”. He will get the shot as he is blowing. Yes, still some tears but I do believe it lessened the anxiety and pain somewhat.

I held my son on my lap during the shots. This also seemed to help him. Give your son the choice of your lap or the exam table.

DON’T pre-treat with Tylenol. This has been shown to reduce the immune response to vaccines. If your child develops a high fever or has swelling or pain at the site of injection, contact his doctor.

DO be generous with the hugs and kisses afterwards. Who knows, he may dart out of office as if nothing ever happened or he may need some extra TLC. Go with the flow.

DO reward him for being such a big boy. This kindergarten well exam and shots is a big milestone for five year olds, why not celebrate? This is a chance to spend the afternoon at the park or library and top it off with a little frozen yogurt treat afterwards. Let’s be honest, getting shots is no fun for anyone and ice-cream really does make everything better.

What techniques worked for your child when preparing him/her for shots?

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14 Responses to The DOs and DON’Ts of Preparing Your Child for Shots
  1. alison
    March 2, 2011 | 5:03 am

    what a wonderful post! my daughter had to get her pre-kindergarten shots this year….and she's been traumatized by the shots process ever since she had to get an allergy test when she was 3. she will literally scream at the thought. i did forewarn her on the way to the doc office and we did talk about it. i held her while she got the shots and then we went to DQ afterwards for some serious ice cream therapy. i like the "blowing out the candle" plan though…and the "bring your own bandaid" idea. will definitely use both of those next time!

  2. Joey @ Big Teeth and Clouds
    March 2, 2011 | 8:33 am

    I prepped her for the shots and she did fine. Then they came at her with a finger prick lead level test. I didn't know they were going to do that. She still talks about it. They had to milk her middle finger for about 5 minutes. It seemed like an eternity.

  3. Liz
    March 2, 2011 | 1:21 pm

    I find this to be totally funny…in Kate's mind, the shot's lasting strength is equal to how long the band-aid stays on her leg. So as soon as I pull the band-aid off, she sighs and is all better.

  4. Lexie Loo & Dylan Too
    March 2, 2011 | 1:24 pm

    Thanks for the tips! My daughter's 4 year well exam is next week, and I never know how she'll react to shots. She sits perfectly still for blood work, but gets all worked up when they bring out the needle for a shot!

  5. Rebekah C
    March 2, 2011 | 1:54 pm

    My kids and I have an understanding. Shots = treat. Usually they pick Chic fil A or McDonald's as there is an indoor playground there and they love it. We didn't start vaccines until they were older so I have found there is not major anxiety. They don't like it but they haven't come to expect the doctor's office to a place of pain and confusion.

  6. Stefanie
    March 2, 2011 | 2:08 pm

    Great list! btw, the "blow out the candle" trick seems to work just as well for allergy shots at 10 as it does for vaccines at 5. Funny how distractions (and ice cream) can make almost anything feel better :) Thanks for the reminder

  7. Mrs.Mayhem
    March 2, 2011 | 4:12 pm

    Dude, I must be a really bad mom. I have never warned my kids ahead of time. (It's hard enough to get them inside the door at the doctor's office.) Probably this is why I have one child who sobs mightily… even if her sibling is the one getting the shot. I guess it's never too late to start using your tips… especially the one about the ice cream afterward.

  8. Practical Parenting
    March 2, 2011 | 10:21 pm

    My 4 year old is getting allergy testing next week. I'm dreading it. She had a steroid shot a few months ago that she still talks about! We blow up balloons, which helps. I also play her favorite music on my phone and bring her favorite stuffed animal and a lollipop.

  9. Christine
    March 3, 2011 | 9:17 am

    Having 5 fully vaccinated children I appreciate you sharing these tips with your readers. I beleive that children often take their cues from us adults. The point is to stay calm yourself and explain that these shots are needed to ensure they stay healthy. I used most of your DO techniques and found them to be very helpful. My kids know that it will be like a bad pinch but by the time they say OUCH it is over. My youngest kid even laughed the last time and said, "Is that it?"

  10. TheBabyMammaChronicles
    March 5, 2011 | 6:20 pm

    Thank you for the list, especially the part about tylenol.

  11. Heather B (HomemadeMom)
    March 7, 2011 | 12:13 pm

    Have you heard of the shot block? There are some doctors in my hometown using them. It's a plastic disc type thing with little bumps that push into the skin and a hole in the middle for the vaccine. They say the bumps confuse the skin and the child doesn't feel the pain of the needle.

  12. Lady Jennie
    March 7, 2011 | 11:48 pm

    We have patches of anaesthesia to put on the arms or thighs where the shots will be. I wonder if you have that in the US.

  13. Melissa (Confessions of a Dr. Mom)
    March 8, 2011 | 7:17 am

    @Heather B I have heard that you can desensitize the skin like that and that confuses the pain receptors. I'll have to look into the shot block, thanks!

    @Lady Jennie Yes, EMLA cream is what we call it over here. It is an option but not widely used unless the parent requests it ahead of time.

  14. Janet Searing
    July 13, 2012 | 6:48 am

    I love this !!! I ‘am a grandmother my son has his daughter 4 to 5 days a week now. The mom just gave us my grandaughters shot record and she is NOT caught up on her shots. She is 4 yrs old. She has a doctors apt today that I made to get her caught up. I don’t know how many shots they can do at one time. But I will try all the things you said. And buy her a nice toy. Some moms should not be moms.