Fear of Needles

Last Updated June 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Deepak S. Patel, MD, FAAFP, FACSM

No matter how old you are, getting a shot at the doctor’s office is no fun. As adults, we recognize that the benefit is worth the discomfort. For children, though, the very idea of a needle can be enough to send them running in the opposite direction.

The fear of needles is real. And to your child, it probably seems as though they get a shot every time they see the doctor. Even if they only receive regular vaccinations and flu shots, that adds up to more than 25 shots by the time they are 6 years old.

If your child has anxiety about going to the doctor for fear of shots, you aren’t alone. Most children have this fear. Some outgrow it by the time they are adults. Others never do.

Thankfully, you can help shape your child’s attitude toward doctor visits and begin to calm their fear of needles. With each trip to the doctor, you can show your children that even though shots are not fun, they are quick and help keep you from getting sick. You can also use strategies proven to help ease the pain caused by needles.

Path to improved health

A visit to the doctor begins with the parent. What you say to your child about the appointment can shape your child’s attitude — even long-term — toward doctors, medical care and shots.

Before the appointment:

  • Keep things on a need-to-know basis. If you have a young child, it is likely that they will be getting a vaccine at a well-child visit. There is no need to volunteer that information. After all, you probably don’t know for sure that your child will receive an injection. If your child asks you outright, say that it’s possible they could get a shot, but that you’re not sure.
  • Be honest. Don’t tell your child that shots don’t hurt. They can. If your child thinks you are lying, they can lose trust in you. They need to feel that you are on their side and will protect them. The truth is that even though shots can hurt, they often don’t hurt that much. And the pain lasts only a few seconds. Focus on that. When your children know that you are telling them the truth, it promotes trust and can help keep them calm.
  • Don’t ruin their week. There is no need to tell your child about the doctor’s appointment too far in advance. You are in charge of the schedule, not them. If you tell them too far ahead of time, it can cause the anxiety to build. It can make them dread the appointment all week. Don’t spring it on them at the last minute, either. Doing so can create panic. Instead, tell them a day or so in advance.
  • Smile. And relax. Studies have shown that the more you tell a child not to worry, the more he or she thinks there is something to worry about. Instead of stopping anxiety, it increases it. If you are positive and happy, it will help keep your child calm. Let them see that you are not worried. Don’t get frustrated or upset even if your child is panicking. Use a soothing voice to tell them that you know they are scared. Assure them that the shot will take only a few seconds.
  • Pretend. This is especially effective for younger children. Role-playing at home is a good way to show your children what happens at the doctor’s office. It can make them feel more comfortable around the equipment. It gives you the chance to talk about shots. Tell your children that shots make us healthy. Tell them that shots can hurt, but only for a few seconds. Demonstrate with a toy doctor’s kit. Have a contest to see who can make the bravest face while getting a shot.

During the appointment:

  • Cause a distraction. Studies have shown that pain from a shot is minimized when a child is distracted. Offer to let your child play a game on your phone. Load a movie onto your iPad or Kindle and let them watch it. For younger children, bring bubbles and blow them to distract your child during the shot.
  • Offer a bribe. One tried-and-true method used by parents everywhere is the bribe. Promise your child a special treat after the appointment. It could be that you take them somewhere fun, like the park. Or you could go for ice cream. Having something to look forward to will help distract them.
  • Cough. According to researchers, coughing as the needle goes in helps to lessen the pain for some people. So, tell your child to cough. Even if it doesn’t ease the pain, the distraction is worth the effort.
  • Ice it. Putting ice on the injection area for a minute right before the shot can help lessen the pain.
  • Use numbing cream. A topical anesthetic cream can sometimes help ease the pain of needles. Ask your doctor about it before the appointment. It takes some time for the cream to work. Typically, you’ll need to use the cream about 20 minutes to an hour before the shot.
  • Relax. Tensing up is one sure way to make shots worse. Encourage your child to relax the area where he or she is getting the injection.
  • Model good behavior. If others in your family are also due for a vaccine, make it a family event. Try to get your own shot right before your child.

After the appointment:

  • Manage the pain. It’s likely that the injection area will be sore after getting a shot. To help manage any pain, you can put ice on it for about 10 minutes. You can also offer your child the recommended dosage of children’s pain reliever, such as Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen).

Things to consider

Anytime your child gets a shot, you should monitor them for possible reactions and side effects. Your doctor will typically provide you with a list of side effects. The list will describe common side effects and serious side effects.

Common side effects after receiving a vaccine, for example, may include soreness and swelling at the injection site. Your child also may have a mild fever, a headache or be irritable.

More severe symptoms could mean that your child is having an allergic reaction. If your child is having a seizure, is delirious, or is having difficulty breathing, you should call 911 immediately.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Why does my child need so many shots?
  • Can my child skip the flu shot this year?
  • What should I do if my child is having an allergic reaction to a shot?
  • My child is allergic to eggs. Can he still get a flu shot?
  • Should I worry about preservatives like mercury in vaccines?
  • Can vaccinations cause autism?
  • My child has severe fear of needles. Should I see a professional counselor?


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Vaccines

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Needle Fears and Phobia


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