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Needlestick Management Strategies for Parents

Helping your child overcome fear of needles

It is common for children (and adults) to be uncomfortable getting a shot. If your child is nervous around needles, you aren’t alone. Data suggests most children are afraid of needles.

There are steps you can take to help your child cope with any nervousness they might feel before a needle stick. There are also things you can do to help them manage pain.

Young mother holds daughter while child gets shot from doctor.

Data suggests most children are afraid of needles. There are steps you can take to help your child cope with any nervousness they might feel before a needle stick.

Talking to your child about needle sticks

Don’t let your child be surprised by a needle stick. If you know your child will need a needle stick, talk to them about it before the appointment. Be sure to use age-appropriate timing and language.

  • Explain that they will need a shot or blood test. For younger children, calling it a “needle poke” might sound less scary while still offering honest information.
  • Talk to them about what will happen and let them ask questions. If you don’t know the answers, ask a member of the care team.
    • Children can build things in their minds to be worse than they are.
    • Talking honestly with your child can help them feel calmer and more secure.
    • Saying, “I don’t know, but we can find out,” is a good answer if you don’t have all the information.
  • Let them know why they need the test or shot.
    • If they’re healthy, explain that tests and vaccines are things we do to stay healthy.
    • If your child is ill, let them know it is to diagnose or treat the illness.
  • Don’t lie to them about discomfort.
  • Reassure them that you and the care team will do everything possible to make it more comfortable.
  • Empower them to do things to help their body feel calmer and the needle poke hurt less. Consider using distraction, relaxation strategies, or pain management options.

If the test or vaccine wasn’t planned before the appointment, let your child know that, too.

Sometimes doctors will suggest tests while you’re in the office. If you start out being honest with your child, they’ll believe and trust you.

Give your child choices when it’s possible

No one wants to have a shot or a blood test. But it’s something we do for our health. Be sure your child understands that they can’t say no to the appointment. But you can give them choices during the appointment.

  • Let them bring a preferred stuffed animal or toy to hold during the needle stick.
  • Let them choose a comfort position for the needle stick:
    • For younger children this may be sitting in your lap
    • For older children this may be sitting on the exam table or stool
  • Allow them to choose a video to watch or music to listen to on a phone or tablet.
  • Let them choose where to have the stick, if possible. For example, your child might be able to choose which arm to look at first.
  • Encourage them to choose a relaxation exercise, such as breathing or mindfulness. Ask your child, “What do you want to do to relax?”

Work with your care team to create a plan

If you’re worried about your child’s fear of needles, your care team can help you make a plan to help tests run more smoothly. Ask a member of your child’s care team about numbing cream, J-Tip, or other options that can lessen the pain from the needle stick. A child life specialist might recommend medical play to help your child get more comfortable with needles.

With the right plan, typical fear of needles can lessen over time. Your child may always be nervous or anxious about needle sticks, but their coping skills can improve over time.

When your child might need extra help

If you and the care team work on a plan and try different methods, but your child’s fear doesn’t improve (or gets worse), then it might be time to talk about different support options for your child. Your child’s care team can make suggestions if that’s the case.

Key points

  • Fear of needles is common in children.
  • There are things you, your child, and your child's care team can do to reduce fear and discomfort with needles, including numbing, positioning for comfort, distraction, and relaxation.
  • Honesty is best when talking to your child about tests or vaccines involving needles.
  • When it’s possible, give your child choices surrounding needle sticks.
  • Your child’s care team can help you come up with a plan to help your child cope with fear of needles and pain.
  • Fear may lessen over time, even if it doesn’t completely disappear.
  • If your child's fear doesn't improve or gets worse, ask your care team about a referral to a mental health professional.

Reviewed: January 2022