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COMIC: When kids are afraid of vaccines, try these tips to help them:

When comic artist and doctor Grace Farris discovered her young son had developed a phobia of needles, she knew she needed help – especially with annual flu shots and two COVID shots in the near future. . So Farris turned to the medical literature and experts to learn how breathing techniques, distraction devices, and even bribery can help children who fear the dreaded blow.

As a doctor, I felt pretty bad about it.  Shouldn't my child be a model patient?  What had I done wrong?  What could I do to help her get through this?  Farris looks at a social media post on his phone.  There's a young girl with a bandage on her arm and the message says, "We won't know if Agnès had the placebo..."  Farris thinks, "wow!  These kids signing up for COVID vaccine trials are amazing!"

Fast forward to fall 2021, and three plans loom in our future.  The flu vaccine, the first COVID vaccine and the second COVID vaccine.  Three needles with faces representing each vaccine are upright.  The flu vaccine says, "Like pumpkins, I come back every fall!" The first COVID vaccine wears sunglasses and points to the second COVID vaccine while saying:  "We're the new cool guys in town!"

After a brief catastrophic spiral, it occurred to me that I should do what I would do with any other clinical dilemma: conduct a literature review and consult with experts.  A laptop is shown with the PubMed website.  And a health expert with a stethoscope around her neck waves at the viewer.

My review confirmed that many children, and even many adults, struggle with needle phobia.  One study reported that up to a third of hospital workers postponed their flu shot for fear of needles.  Two health workers are deep in thought in the emergency room.  It is believed, "Wow, needles!" The other thinks, "Ouch, needles."

But with three shots coming up, I needed solutions!  Some pre-COVID studies suggested distraction with screen time, but after two years of seemingly endless screen use, I was skeptical that it would work as a powerful distraction.  Farris' two sons sit with their digital devices.  There is an arrow pointing to the smallest son that says "My youngest son didn't have a needle problem."

The pediatricians I spoke to had other suggestions.  Joslyn Nolasco, a pediatrician at UCSF, says she sees needle phobia a lot.  Nolasco stands in his doctor's coat wearing a.  stethoscope.  She says, "We remind parents not to lie, but not to dwell on it or discuss it too much, as this will increase anxiety.  We use deep breathing, distraction with toys and bubbles..."

Farris says: My kids are a bit old for bubbles, but Nolasco says there are also devices called "Shot Blockers" which can help with desensitization at the injection site.

What is a ShotBlocker?  A small, half-moon shaped piece of plastic with blunt nubs spread across the entire device is shown.  There is an arrow pointing to the device that says "The blunt bumps distribute the pressure around the injection site." Nolasco stands under the device saying: "Sometimes just talking about the fact that we have these tools to use helps older children overcome the difficulty."

For younger kids, Nolasco suggested playing magic or pretend.  A young girl with pigtails raises a muscular arm.  She's wearing hot pink pants with lightning bolts, a lighter pink shirt that says "Girl shot!" and a yellow cape.  Above her, the text reads: A new superhero!

Most of the techniques I've read seem to boil down to three main categories.  Two of them are written on a taped and stapled paper list.  It reads: Distraction.  TV, Telling jokes, Books, question mark.  The other reads: Corruption, often my go-to.  TV, Candy, Pokemon Cards, Toys.  A bag of gummy worms sits below these listings along with a book titled Bear Goes To The Doctor!

More taped lists describe the last technique: physical maneuvers.  ShotBlockers, The cough trick (a quick cough before, during and after the shot), squeeze a foam ball, or pant like a dog.  Box breathing is another technique.  Inhale for 4 seconds.  Hold your breath for 4 seconds.  Exhale for 4 seconds.  Hold again for 4 seconds.  Finally, in some cases, therapy is also an effective next step.

After all that data collection, I can't say I'm proud of what happened next.  As usual, I chose the path of least resistance: corruption.  Farris stands next to her two children who look at her skeptically.  She says, "You know, I've heard that some parents let their kids swear when they get the COVID shot..."

Swearing was not a medical recommendation.  Just something other parents had tried.  Farris' eldest son says, "Really?!"

Farris wears a mask and coat in a pharmacy.  Her son is sitting on a chair next to a health worker who is giving him an injection.  He is shown screaming swear words.  I told the pharmacist our plan and the promise of curses with vaccines seemed to help.  I just hope it doesn't become a habit.

Farris is holding his phone and on the screen is a view of the Google homepage search.  Farris grabbed "how to stop a child from swearing".

Dr Grace Farris is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Texas at Dell Medical School in Austin. His book, mom milestones, comes out in the spring. You can find her on Instagram @coupdegracefarris.


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Passionate troublemaker. Amateur gamer. Lifelong alcohol specialist. Social media nerd. Thinker
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