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How to Help Prepare Your Preschooler For a Flu Shot

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

Flu season is around the corner!

Did you know that getting your flu shot this year will be more important than ever before? Because COVID-19 is putting more strain on healthcare systems, decreasing flu spread by getting your flu shot will reduce the overwhelm for our hospitals and staff!

Every year the CDC studies the effectiveness of each annual flu shot, and while the effectiveness can vary, they estimate the flu shot reduces flu spread by about 40-60%!

I'm going to discuss why it's important to help kids with shots, how to prepare your preschooler for, support your child during, and help your child after the flu shot.

Woo! That's a lot!

Are you ready?

Here we go!

Why It's Important to Help Children with Shots

You might think of shots as something that just needs to be done really quickly and that it's best to just get it over with for your child.

However, research shows that children report experiences with needles as something they fear the most!

photo: Nicole Hill Gerulat
photo: Nicole Hill Gerulat

Research also tells us that kids who are prepared have significantly less fear and anxiety, and are better able to cope during their medical experiences.

We have also learned from research that untreated needle fear and pain can lead to individuals avoiding healthcare and vaccinations, and preprocedural anxiety.

Set your child up for success for their entire future of medical experiences by starting now. Help to provide your child with the best possible experience you can.

Here's how you can do that.

How to Prepare Your Preschooler for the Flu Shot

Before taking your child to the doctor, it's crucial that your child is prepared for the appointment and procedure.

How would you like it if you were surprised by a doctor's appointment that involved needles?

Kids deserve to be respected just as we respect adults, but they learn differently!

Do you know how kids learn best?



Play is even more important to incorporate while teaching children when your child is young.

You will need to adjust your language to the age or developmental level of your child, of course. As children grow older you can give more details about the experience. Younger children should be given less information, while still giving honest information about all they will experience!

Prepare your child for the flu shot a few days before the appointment. At this age, kids need time to rehearse coping skills, process the information through play, and have time to ask any additional questions they might think about.

Preschoolers are still working to understand the concept of time, so it's best not to confuse them about when this experience will be. This is why you shouldn't prepare them more than a few days in advance. Give your child a concrete description of when the flu shot appointment will be. For example: two more sleeps, one more dinner, three school days, etc.

For children who are highly anxious, you should prepare them closer to the event- the day before or the morning of the appointment. However, you need to still prepare them! Never show up to the appointment and then tell your child!

By keeping open and honest communication with your child, you're also keeping your relationship strong. Your child knows she can trust that you will let her know when something stressful is coming her way. If you surprise her, she will often worry about what you might surprise her with next. This creates and fuels anxiety!

Here's how you can prepare your child for a flu shot:

1. Gather your supplies

Children are hands-on learners. This means they need to be doers since play is an action word, we've already got the formula for learning and doing!

Grab any play doctor kits you have on hand, some real band-aids, and baby wipes or hand sanitizing wipes.

play doctor tools for kids

2. Let your child choose a "pretend patient"

Ask your child to choose a doll, stuffed animal, or action figure who needs to see the doctor today.

Whenever you can give your child a choice, do it!

This is how you can help your child feel some control over the experience.

Another reason you should allow your child to choose the patient is that she might not want her special stuffed animal or doll to be poked. This can make some kids upset to see their favorite stuffy experience pain.

toys dolls and stuffed animals

Many parents think playing doctor is great to do with their child using each other as the patient (e.g. mom gives the child a pretend shot and the child gives mom a pretend shot), however, since we know kids play out their experiences, we like to minimize practicing needle procedures on one another since it doesn't necessarily teach needle safety.

Rather, practicing needle procedures on a pretend patient allows children to play out these experiences in a safer way while allowing them to feel the control of what's going on. This feeling of control is something kids lack during the procedure when they are the victim being poked; but when they have their pretend patient, they get to have the control of giving the shot.

You can see how this isn't something we want to teach kids to practice on one another!

3. Give your pretend patient a flu shot

Help your child understand the experience sequentially (as they are going to experience it) and keep in mind to provide information about what all 5 senses will experience.

Always use accurate and honest information, but be sure to use soft and minimally-threatening language! We would rather not do more harm than good- keep the super scary stuff out of this conversation.

Before you start explaining the process of getting a flu shot, be sure you explain what it is and why your child needs the shot.

The flu vaccine is a tricky one to explain because we want to teach kids that it will prevent them from getting the flu, but we all know that while the scientists make their best guesses on which flus will be widespread, sometimes they aren't always accurate and your child might still get a flu this season.

At this age, it's difficult to explain all that.

Here's my best attempt at it:

"There's a medicine that will help your body to not get super sick with the flu. You might still get a little sick with a flu, but this medicine is going to help you to not get really really sick and get lots of flus."

"You can't drink the medicine. This medicine needs to go in your leg or your arm. It will be a quick pinch to help get that medicine into your leg or arm. Let's practice on your baby and give her the medicine. Do you want to help?

Let's clean her leg first.

(Let your child clean by using a wet wipe on the pretend patient's leg)

Clean, clean, clean...

Now it's time for the quick pinch that will help her medicine go into her body.

Do you want to give her the medicine or should I?

(sometimes kids want you to do it first and then they want a turn after. Others are ready to do it themselves the first time, and some never want a turn. Follow your child's lead and give them as much of a hands-on learning experience she is comfortable with.)

Time for a band-aid

(allow the child to help put a band-aid on)

She's all done! Now she goes home and that medicine will help keep her body healthy!"

How to Support Your Child During the Flu Shot

So you've done all the prep work, and now it's time for some procedural support! Below are some ways you can help your child cope during the flu shot.

Kids feel less pain when they are sitting up rather than laying down during vaccinations. If you aren't familiar with comfort positioning, be sure to learn more about them on these posts: Benefits of Comfort Positioning for Medical Procedures: How you can help your child at the doctor and How to use Comfort Positioning for Medical Procedures: How to hold your child for shots.

These are my favorite comfort positions for preschoolers getting flu shots:

child being held by mom getting a shot

Chest to Chest Straddle

I love this position because it gives great access to the leg and arm while allowing the child lots of contact with her caregiver. It's great for kids who are fearful of the doctor. You can also help your child hold still really well with this position. If your child pushes up with her legs on the exam bed, you'll need to change positions or scoot to the edge of the bed so the child's legs hang down in front of the bed. Wrap your arms around your child in a big bear hug to ensure you have secured your child's arms.

child being held by mom at the doctor playing

Chest to Back Sitting

This position is great for kids who are less fearful and do ok watching the procedure. If you need to help keep your child's legs still, here's the same position with the child's legs secured:

child being held by mom at the doctor playing

You can see I am securing her legs with my legs and I also have the ability to wrap my arms around her in a big bear hug to be sure they are secure. Be sure to leave access to the child's upper thigh or arm (ask the medical staff which one they will inject the vaccine into).

Create a coping plan & possibly utilize distraction

For older kids, offering distraction is a choice they get to make, but at this age, kids are hit and miss if they can really make that choice. Or they might make the choice and when you get into procedure time they are unable to engage in whatever coping plan you had created together.

Some kids are distractible and others aren't. If you can tell your child isn't engaging in your distraction methods, stop what you're doing and change it up. Be flexible!

Here are some ideas of what you could use/do to help your child cope during the flu shot:

  • engage in deep breathing

  • count until it's over

  • sing a song

  • play eye spy in the room

  • use a look and find book

  • look through a viewfinder

  • bring a glitter wand

  • squeeze a stress ball or play-doh

  • watch a spinning light-up toy

Here are a few of my favorite toys to help (click to shop on Amazon):

spinning light up toy

Spinning light up toys can be novel to preschoolers. They will grab your child's attention, but your child will also want to hold it, so be ready for his arm to move to grab the toy! Ensure you have your child in a secure comfort position and don't get that light going until right before the pinch! Or, wait to show this until after the procedure is over to help your child deescalate.

toy story look and find book

A big Look and Find book is a great way to block your child's view of what's going on (if you need to) while engaging with your child in a fun search for objects!

automatic bubble wand

Bubbles work wonders at this age!

They are too difficult to manage while holding your child for the shot, but using them before can decrease fear and help communicate that you can also play in a medical space! Also using bubbles after can help your child to calm down after the shot.

stretchy squeeze ball

You can find all my favorite toys to help distract toddlers during procedures on my Amazon page here.

Provide supportive language

Since you are the most important person in your child's life right now, your child needs to know that you will be with her the whole time and that you will be ready to comfort her.

Part of showing your support for your child, is helping her get through it.

Narrate the experience as it's happening, with soft and minimally-threatening language, even if you're utilizing distraction.

"I'm going to hold you for your quick pinch. Here comes the wet wipe. This will feel wet and cold. Now it's time for the quick pinch. 1, 2, 3... Now the band-aid then you're all done! Time to go home!"

Make sure you're also giving praise and positive reinforcement during the procedure.

Statements like,

"You're doing a great job!"

"Thank you for keeping your body still! You're being such a good helper!"

"It's ok to be sad and cry! You're doing an awesome job especially while you are feeling scared!"

Help decrease pain

There are a couple of methods you can use that are proven to decrease your child's pain during vaccinations:

If your child is very anxious, it would be helpful to consider using one these pain relief methods until your child is able to cope a little better with medical experiences!

How to Help Your Child after the Flu Shot

Facilitate post-procedural play

It's therapeutic for kids to play out their experiences.

Providing kids with medical tools and a pretend patient to use in medical play after the procedure is over (can be when you get home but it doesn't have to be immediately, maybe a few hours later or even the next day) will help to facilitate a therapeutic play session for your child.

You might find that your child plays out his exact experience or sometimes it might be much more dramatic, which could give you some insightful information about how they actually felt about the experience.

Either way, post-procedural play can help kids make sense of what they experienced and give them control over the experience.

It can also prepare kids for future medical procedures as they can rehearse coping strategies for next time.

If your child had a very difficult time getting her flu shot, you should insert more medical play into your child's play. This is a powerful way to prepare your child for her next medical experience, too.

Don't underestimate the power of post-procedural play!

I hope these tips help you as you support your child through one of the most terrifying experiences our kids have to endure.

If you also have other children, I have posts on How to Help Prepare Your Toddler with a Flu Shot and How to Help Your School-age or Teenage Child with a Flu Shot (coming soon!) so check those out to help your older kids with flu shots!

Best of luck!





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