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How to Help Prepare Your Toddler for a Flu Shot

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

child getting shot held by mom in comfort position

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 child 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!

child nervous at the doctor
photo: Nicole Hill Gerulat

It 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 Toddler 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.

Sometimes with really young children, adults can feel they won't understand so there's no reason to prepare them for medical experiences.

Do you know what kids really understand?


It's how they learn!

When you incorporate play into preparing your child for a flu shot, your child will better understand what's going to happen! This is even more important to incorporate with toddlers vs. older children.

You will need to adjust your language to the age or developmental level of your child, of course.

Younger toddlers should be given less information and older toddlers can understand a bit more information.

At this age, prepare your child for the flu shot on the day of the flu shot.

You're welcome to bring out your doctor kit and immerse your child in medical play days or a week leading up to the shot, however, your prep should happen the day of the visit.

Toddlers can't grasp the concept of time yet, so it's best not to confuse them about when this experience will be; keep it close to the event.

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 doing.

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

play medical tools

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.

dolls and stuffed animals toys

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 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'd rather not do more harm than good- keep the super scary stuff out of this conversation.

For example, with a younger toddler you might say:

"Here's baby's medicine!

First, wipe clean! (Let the child help you wipe with a wet wipe)

Next, quick pinch! (use a doctor kit syringe and allow the child to help push it down)

Time for the band-aid! (allow the child to help put baby's band-aid on).

All done! (emphasize this!)

She goes home now!"

You can see how this is very few words, but you are providing the language your child needs in order to understand the experience. If your child doesn't fully understand at this visit, it will help prepare him for the next.

With an older toddler you might say:

"Baby's going to the doctor.

Baby needs the medicine inside of here. (holding up a syringe with pretend needle)

She can't drink the medicine. It has to go in her leg.

Let's clean her leg first. (let child help clean by using a wet wipe on the pretend patient's leg)

Clean, clean, clean...

Then it's time for the quick pinch (demonstrate the injection)

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

All done! She goes home now!"

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 toddlers getting flu shots:

child being held by mom in comfort position for 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. In this picture, I have a Look and Find book on the exam bed to help distract the child (although I always narrate what's happening to let the child know when it's coming ("ok now the quick pinch")

child 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. 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).

Utilize distraction

For older kids, offering distraction is a choice they get to make, but at this age, kids can't really make that choice.

They are, however, very distractible.

Bring some toys you can use to help distract your child during the injection.

Here are a few of my favorite toys to help :

spinning light up toy

Spinning light up toys are often novel to toddlers. 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.

Thomas & Friends Look and Find book for distraction

A big Look and Find book is a great way to block your child's view of what's going on

while engaging with your child in a fun search for objects!

bubbles for distraction

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.

automatic bubble wand mickey

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

Provide supportive language

Since toddlers don't understand much as to why this is happening (though we do our best to explain of course!), the most important things they need to know is when it's "all done" and that you will be there to comfort them the whole time since you are the most important person to them.

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

"Mommy's going to hold you for your quick pinch. Here comes the wet wipe. This will feel wet and cold. Now a quick pinch. She's putting the band-aid on then 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:

  • Emla numbing cream (this is prescription. Ask your doctor about using Emla prior to the appointment)

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.

If your child had a very difficult time getting her flu shot, you might consider inserting 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 older children, I have other posts on How to Help Your Preschooler 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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