Nfld. & Labrador

Is your child nervous about getting vaccinated? This psychologist has advice

Kids under five in Newfoundland and Labrador are now able to get vaccinated against COVID-19. This St. John's psychologist has advice for parents with nervous kids, or who are unsure whether their children should get the shot.

Fear of needles in kids is 'extremely common,' says Dr. Janine Hubbard

Dr. Janine Hubbard is a registered psychologist and president of the Association of Psychology Newfoundland and Labrador. (Paul Pickett/CBC)

As of Monday, children between the ages of six months and five years can get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador.

While some parents are breathing a sigh of relief, others are more nervous — and some kids are likely downright terrified.

According to Eastern Health, 33 to 36 per cent of children experience some fear of needles, and five to 10 per cent of children have full-blown trypanophobia.

According to the Department of Health and Community Services, 16 children were hospitalized due to COVID-19 during the Omicron wave in Newfoundland and Labrador. On Thursday, Dr. Rosann Seviour, acting Chief Medical Officer of Health, said the vaccine works "very well" in preventing hospitalization and severe illness.

Dr. Janine Hubbard, a registered psychologist in St. John's, spoke with The St. John's Morning Show's Jamie Fitzpatrick about easing needle fears, and how parents and guardians can approach vaccination.

The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You've been helping people in the general public cope with fears about needles throughout this pandemic. How common is it for kids and toddlers to have these kinds of fears? 

A: Oh, it's extremely common. Some stats suggest about one in three kids have a strong fear of needles, and I mean, if you think about it, it makes sense. It's not a pleasant experience and it's something that we build up in our minds as being much worse than it is because it's not something that we encounter on a regular basis.... It is a very common fear and it's actually one that has a lot to do with how parents themselves experience the situation and how they set their kids up for that vaccination appointment. 

But what do the parents do that sometimes exacerbates it? 

Sometimes it's the language that we use.… If we're uncomfortable with needles ourselves, we're going to pass on the message … that sets the kids up for this is going to be a really uncomfortable situation — especially with really little kids, with infants, which is what we're dealing with now. 

Your body language is a very powerful message to your child about whether or not this is something that's no big deal or whether or not it's something that they need to be concerned about. With infants and toddlers, we often do vaccinations with kids in the arms of a parent or guardian, and something as simple as how tightly you're holding on to that child can make a world of difference in terms of the message that you're giving off to them without even realizing that you're doing it. 

Three adults and a young child.
Hubbard says even body language — like how tightly an adult is holding a child — can tell a child how nervous they should be. (John Ngala/CBC News)

Some parents say they've been vaccinated themselves, they've had their older children vaccinated against COVID and they're still a bit worried, a bit hesitant about a much smaller child like a toddler getting that shot. Why do you think that is? 

I think a number of things have happened. We've had positive experiences for the most part as adults. [The vaccine] definitely works. They're very effective about minimizing the effects of the disease. But we do know that it's not going to necessarily prevent you from getting COVID. A lot of the people who were initially really chomping at the bit for vaccinations — some of that attitude has changed. 

Of course, we're always going to be extra protective of our youngest kids because there's just that feeling that they are fragile, they're vulnerable, and in a lot of cases they're too young to sort of understand. So, I think as adults, we do take that extra step wanting to make sure that they're protected in whatever way we feel that that means. 

Most young kids get any number of needles to protect them against any number of terrible outcomes from a very early age, and we're grateful for that, even if it might not be a pleasant experience on the day in question. Do you think people might feel differently or more hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine just because it's still new? 

I think there is definitely the element of it being so new. A lot of it depends on personal circumstances. Who in the family may have contracted COVID, what their experiences have been, workplace environments of parents, vulnerable grandparents. There's all kinds of those same situations that have influenced decision-making for all of us throughout this. Our youngest children are actually the ones who are probably most familiar with having to get vaccinations because we do that series of vaccinations when they are young, so that in many ways they're far more accustomed to it. 

What advice do you have for parents who are struggling with these sorts of concerns? Just, you know, within themselves, never mind that hesitancy among some children about needles. 

You know yourself. You know your family. As we've been saying throughout this pandemic, you need to make the choices that work best for you as a family and not be judgmental of others. Different circumstances, different childcare arrangements — there are so many variables that go into play. I recommend everybody get themselves educated, get the good, reliable information, and then weigh out your individual pros and cons. 

If you do have kids or you yourself are fearful of the situation, there's loads and loads of strategies that can be done in this group, and particularly where we have the very young infants. If you have a child who is breastfeeding or able to be bottle fed during the procedure, that really helps, as is distraction. There's some fascinating research on infant pain that suggests that a little bit of sugar water, so a little syringe with some water just before they get their vaccination can actually reduce pain levels as well as act in terms of a distraction for them. 

With little kids, this is the group where we get to do all the medical plays, if you think about all those medical play kits with the blood pressure kit cups and the syringes and the needles and that. Engaging in medical play for toddlers is one of the best ways to reduce their fear and normalise it as just part of their developmental process.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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