Helping your child cope with injections and other medical procedures

Parents have tremendous influence over their children's lifelong feelings about medical care. Here are some suggestions for helping cope with an injection or any uncomfortable medical procedure. (We recommend the word "injection" rather than "shot" because children tend to take words literally, and many associate "shot" with "gunshot."

  • Prepare your child for what will happen (and why) during a medical visit. When children don't know, they tend to imagine the worst.
  • Be honest. Don't promise that there won't be any injections or that an injection won't hurt. Your child needs to be able to trust what you say.
  • Never say that medical treatment is a punishment. Injections are not given for misbehavior.

How much advance warning should you give?

Some children need time to adjust to the idea. Others only become more upset with more time to think about it. A younger child usually needs less time. For example, a 5-year-old may need to be prepared only a day in advance, while an older child usually needs to know several days ahead.

  • Explain the need for injections in words your child can understand. "Injections may bother you for a little while, but they keep you from getting sicknesses that could hurt worse." Older children usually need more information than younger children.
  • "Pretend play" can help a child adjust to and understand medical procedures. Children play school and house, so it's natural to do medical play. Provide safe "equipment" such as cotton balls, masking tape, bandages, etc. A play medical kit is a great gift for a young child.
  • Tell the child that medical personnel are helpers, not enemies. Explain that the things they do are to find out more about the child's body, or to help them get better, or to keep them from getting sick.
  • Offer your support. Say, "I'll be there to help you." Ask what will make it easier: "Would it help to squeeze my hand? Should we count together?"
  • Alert the staff if your child has had a hard time with injections in the past. Do it in a way that won't embarrass your child or set an expectation for another difficult experience.
  • Listen through your child's ears and explain new words or confusing information.

During the injection, do whatever helps your child. You may also need to recognize and deal with any discomfort of your own, so that you can offer support and comfort to your child.

Suggestions for helping your child relax during an injection: Singing, stroking, patting, storytelling, relaxation and breathing techniques, blowing bubbles, wiggling fingers or toes, counting backwards by twos, imagining a favorite place or activity.

Fear and crying are not signs of failure. It would be unusual if a young child did not have these natural responses.

What happens afterward is just as important as the preparation. Don't make your child say "thank you." If he or she had a difficult time, don't talk about the negative aspects. The child did the best he or she could. And after all, the child did get the injection! That's success. Congratulate your child.

Over the next few days, no matter how the experience went, you can follow up. Ask what it was like, and repeat reasons for the injection. Reading a book about a similar medical experience can also help your child talk about it.

Family Focus is a series of positive discipline parenting tips and information sheets developed by specialists at Children's Hospitals and Clinics, Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. For a complete list of topics, visit our Web page: