As part of my job I end up being present in kids pediatrician’s appointments very often – I work as a Mental Health Consultant in Pediatric Primary Care. Because there is always so much to talk about, I often stay longer, meaning… I am there for the shots! Believe me, I have seen it all! But the one think that strikes me the most, is how many parents are anxious even before their kids! And I am not talking about the 3 or 4-year-old kids whose parents have seen them almost kick the nurse last time and are already thinking how to calm this child down! I am talking about tiny babies that don’t even know what’s coming their way. I have had parents wanting to leave the room and have the nurse and Child Life Specialist give the baby its shots, because they just can’t take it.
When I read a Tweet on BabyCenter about the correlation between parental anxiety and perceived pain by the child, I was not shocked. In a nutshell, they are saying that babies with parents that are more anxious about vaccination, feel more pain.
I know, I know! Once again here come the experts blaming the parents on everything! Not the case! I completely empathize! You have a sweet, lovely new baby and you know someone is going to stick a needle in their leg… of course you don’t like the idea! Who would? Specially in those visits where there are 4 or 5 of them! And, if you were a child that hated vaccination so much… it’s probably even ten times harder for you, because you still recall those traumatic days! Also, let’s not forget something here: those shots DO HURT! However, the research in my view just points out, once again, the importance for babies to have a caregiver that they can trust and rely on, someone who is always there to protect and comfort them! Check out this recent post from Waylon’s mom that talks exactly about that need for comfort!
When a baby get’s its first shots, they have no clue what is about to happen, what is happening, or why it’s happening (check out the cute expression of puzzlement of the baby below)! All they know is “something feels painful, I’m not happy about it, but as long as my mommy or daddy are here for me, to pick me up, I will be fine!”. If you think about it, it’s the same process as with a fever or colic… they don’t know what it is or why it’s happening, only that it makes them physically uncomfortable and that they want to be held and loved by their parent! Most of the times I see a baby get their vaccines, they do cry. But, as soon as their parent picks them up and comforts them, they are fine! Like nothing ever happened!
Of course there is a time, around 6 to 9 months, sometimes older, when they will begin to make associations between “the last time I laid on this table” and “something happened that I didn’t like”. At that time, you might see some stronger reactions, like crying when placed on the exam table. This also happens more when kids have had some medical trauma, meaning they have been hospitalized or have had more medical procedures than usual for their age. But again, being strong for them and showing them that you are there and everything will be fine, is key! I remember when my god-daughter was around 9 months old and she had been hospitalized a couple of times (nothing serious, thankfully). One night I slept over and had white pajamas on. When she saw me at night with those white pajamas, she lost it! She started crying so hard that her mom had the hardest time calming her down. We then realized that I reminded her of the doctors and nurses she had seen in the hospital and that had been poking her for days!
So going back to the main story. How can you help your child during vaccination? It obviously depends on their age. But the key factors are:
1. Breathe in and out and relax yourself first. Try to show a confident, but empathic face to your child.
2. Try holding them in a more loving and comforting position VS a restraining position. Ask your nurse about alternative ways to hold your child, instead of the traditional (on the exam table, holding legs down). This is harder to do once kids get older and stronger.
3. You can try to talk or sing to your baby and gently stroke their face or hand.
4. Some people say that breastfeeding while the baby is getting shots is helpful for babies, but also some doctors/nurses do not think it’s safe (due to possible choking if they do cry) and will not allow it. Check with your provider. But if not possible, breastfeeding before and immediately after, can be very helpful! Or bottle feeding, if you are not breastfeeding, as long as you hold them tight with all your love!
5. Distraction and play may also be good for older babies and toddlers.
6. Finally, the most important thing is to pick them up as soon as those band-aids are on and use all your preferred soothing techniques (swinging, swaddling, talking, singing, pacifier, etc.), while reassuring them that they are ok, that those shots are for them not to get sick, that you are there to comfort them, and everything will be fine!
So, mommy, don’t worry! It will be over in just one second!