I always got a bit nervous a few days before my toddler's doctor appointments where I knew she was going to have to get a shot. As I began exploring why, I tried to recall my childhood experiences with doctors and vaccines. From what I can remember, my mom rarely told me when I was getting a shot and usually responded with "I don't know" if I asked her directly. While it may be true that she didn't know, recalling these memories takes me back to a place of anxiety and nervousness. The fact that I couldn't prepare for what would take place at the doctor's office somehow made the experience much worse, even if I didn't end up getting a vaccine. With my daughter, I decided to help her ease into this experience with the opportunity to feel more prepared about the situation.
As a therapist, I have seen firsthand how powerful it can be to assist individuals in feeling mentally prepared for something that brings up uncomfortable emotions. It lends a semblance of control and offers time to adjust to something that feels scary or anxiety provoking. When my daughter was old enough to understand what was happening, I started to speak with her about upcoming doctor appointments and what was going to happen. Although no kid is a fan of getting shots, I could see that the more she understood, the more at ease she was with these appointments.
Beginning with young toddlers (around age 1), one of the best activities you can do with them is to role play what's going to happen at the appointment and use language that's familiar in your house for little boo boos or ouchies. We got our little one a doctor toy kit and pretended to give each other vaccines and do a general checkup. When I gave myself a shot or my daughter a shot, I would say, "ok, tiny ouch" and then afterwards I would overemphasize the praise and make sure that she felt really proud of herself. Even if her dad wasn't participating in the activity, he would praise her for being brave as well, and we would go over what happened at her pretend doctor appointment as a family. Two days prior to an appointment where I know she will be getting a vaccine, I always explain that we are going to the doctor and will be getting a tiny ouch, but then she will get to pick out a special band-aid and we are going to have a treat afterwards. While she isn't ever happy about getting a vaccine, I could see that preparing her beforehand has made a significant difference in her level of calm before and throughout the appointment.
As your toddler gets older, modeling behavior begin to click in a bit more. While you can model what getting a shot looks like for young toddlers, as they near the 1.5/2 year old mark, it's really important to more thoroughly talk through what you're modeling. This may look like telling your toddler the exact procedure that's going to happen (wipe a small area on your leg, shot, then band-aid). Practice this activity at home prior to the appointment and let your toddler play the doctor as well. Be sure to take a deep breath before your "shot" to show your toddler a simple way to relax their body. I also like to have the doctor or nurse pretend to give me a shot before my daughter gets hers to further illustrate that we all get shots to keep our body healthy and strong. It can also be helpful to bring your child's favorite toy or lovey to the appointment and have them get a vaccine as well. This can provide extra comfort to your little one.
Regardless of your toddler's age, if they discuss feeling scared or nervous about the appointment, be sure to validate their feelings, remind them that it's going to be really quick, and tell them that shots help our bodies stay strong. Reiterate that everyone in the house gets shots and that you're going to do something special afterwards. My daughter loves Junior Mints and we only eat them after getting a vaccine. Literally as soon as she sits up post vaccine, I hand her a box of candy and give her a ton of praise for being so brave. This typically takes the edge off and makes going to the doctor associated with something yummy that we only eat once in a while. When we get home, I tell her how proud I am of her for doing such a good job. I allow her to process as much as she wants and she usually feels excited to tell her dad, Nana, and Papa about her doctor experience. All of this praise reinforces the appointment as a more positive experience, despite a small ouchie being a part of it.
As a parent or caregiver, be very mindful of your energy when you discuss the appointment with your child and never give them more than two days notice before a shot, as this can build up their anxiety. Remember that they are picking up on your vibe and can feel your anxiety, even if you are unaware of it. At the appointment, if you feel nervous right before your child's shot, do a quick breath exercise, get to a calmer place, and refocus on helping your child remain calm. Shots tend to hurt more when our body is tense, so help your child relax by comforting them, relaxing your facial expression, speaking slowly and in a lower tone, and having their special surprise or treat ready to give them immediately. Even though we never want our little ones to experience any pain ever, some pain is inevitable, and it's our job to help them move through uncomfortable situations with confidence, and the comforting support of their parent(s) or caregiver — and some chocolate never hurts either.