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Turns Out How Much Pain Your Child Feels During Shots Has a Lot to Do With You

Photograph by Twenty20

Vaccinations protect kids against many types of illnesses, but they are also terrifying to a child. A new study is aimed at reducing the pain and fear that young kids face before, during and after a vaccination shot.

By observing both children and their parents during repeated vaccinations throughout childhood, researchers from York University's OUCH Cohort at the Faculty of Health have determined that the amount of distress and pain felt by a preschooler during immunization was strongly related to how their parents helped them cope before and during an appointment.

The study, led by graduate student Lauren Campbell, examined 548 children who were expressing the most pain during preschool vaccinations. Researchers evaluated three different pain behaviors: facial activity (grimacing), leg activity (crunching of legs), crying and consolability. In addition, they analyzed what the child and parent said to one another related to coping with pain.

According to professor Rebecca Pillai Riddell in the faculty of Health, York Research Chair in Pain and Mental Health (and senior author of the paper), "When children were distressed prior to the needle, that made them feel more pain after the needle."

Riddell, who followed the OUCH Cohort children for over a decade, believes it is important to avoid negative or distress-promoting behaviors.

"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 'OK' 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 behaviors and increase pain and distress."

The study, published in Pain, insisted that a parent's behavior during vaccinations are not only critical to a child's pain coping responses, but can also impact the child’s reactions in the future—all the way into adulthood. Their suggestion: Show them you care by being supportive.

To help reduce a child’s pain-related distress, they recommend that parents engage in coping-promoting behaviors like encouraging your child to take deep breaths or distracting them with games, stories or conversations about what they plan to do afterward. It only takes a minute to detour a child from their panicked imagination, but every second counts when they're scared.

"People who have negative reactions with doctors when they are young, may avoid preventative care in the future,” says Riddell. “If you didn't like a needle when you were 5, that can stick with you."

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