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It's the Parents' Fault When Kids Hate Needles

Photograph by Twenty20

For some kids, getting shots is no big deal. For others, it's hours—sometimes days—of excrutiating fear and anticiption, with screams and cries during and after the actual shot.

What accounts for the difference?

New research published in the journal Pain concluded that parents' reactions to shots when their kids were just babies sets the tone for how the child will react to shots when they get older—creating fears that sometimes last through adulthood and possibly influencing decisions like whether to get an annual flu shot or stay up-to-date on tetanus and whooping cough vaccines.

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The study involved researchers from York University who observed preschoolers' faces during regular doctors appointments when shots were administered. Prior to that, they had observed parents' reaction to shots when those same kids were just babies. What they found was that the child's anxiety in anticipation of a shot was linked to how their parents reacted during infant vaccinations.

York researchers looked at 202 parents in the Greater Toronto area and 130 children between 4 and 5 years old. The observed children were also participants in a previous study of 760 kis who were followed through immunizations when they were 2, 4, 6 and 12 months old. This most recent round of observations was to see if they could find when children developed a fear of needles, so they asked parents how scared they were before their children got shots, and how scared the parents thought their kids were. They found that the older the child, the more distress in anticipating the shot the children had.

Other parental behaviors also influenced the kids, including how parents interacted with their children regarding the shots. Dr. Rebecca Pillai Riddell said, in a statement accompanying the publication, that "this strongly suggests that the involvement of parents in pain management interventions during immunization is one of the most critical factors in predicting anticipatory distress to the preschool vaccination."

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Riddell, who runs the Opportunities to Understand Childhood Hurt Laboratory at York, recommended parents speak positively of the shots and their value to the child. About Kids Health, a pediatric resource from The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, suggests parents say something like, “I need to give your injection so you will have lots of energy to play and to grow.”

And take them for doughnuts or ice cream after the appointment.

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