Study provides insight to help parents reduce post-vaccination stress in young kids

Looking forward to a fall with hopefully one of the most important vaccination uptakes of children in a generation, a new study provides insights to help parents with reducing post-vaccination distress in younger kids. The study, published in the journal PAIN, looked at preschool children who were at least four to five years old and what their parents said that could help reduce distress during their vaccination.

This study is part of the largest study in the world – coined the OUCH Cohort – looking at caregivers and children during vaccinations from birth to the age of five. The OUCH Cohort originally followed 760 caregiver-child dyads from three pediatric clinics in the Greater Toronto Area and were observed during vaccinations during the first five years of a child’s life.

Rebecca Pillai Riddell

Rebecca Pillai Riddell

“What we found is that in the first minute after the needle, the more parents said coping-promoting statements such as ‘you can do this’ and ‘it will be over soon’ or tried to distract them with talking about something else, the higher distressed the children were. This really surprised us,” said Rebecca Pillai Riddell, senior author, professor in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health, and director at the OUCH Lab at York University. “We found, however, during the second minute after the vaccine when the child was calmer, these same coping-promoting statements resulted in them calming down faster. On the other hand, distress-promoting statements such as criticizing the child or reassuring them that they were fine had no relationship with child distress in minute one, but in minute two the distress-promoting comments were strongly predictive of higher distress in kids. We also showed with preschoolers that the more distressed they were prior to the needle, the more distressed they were after the needle – like a domino effect of previous pain.”

“Previous research has shown that the vast majority of preschoolers calm down within two minutes after a vaccination; however, about 25 per cent of children did not,” said Ilana Shiff, first author and master’s student in Pillai Riddell’s lab. “We wanted to determine what parents were saying before or during the vaccination appointment that could be leading to these children feeling distressed during and after a vaccination.”

Based on their findings, the researchers recommend that in first minute after a vaccine parents should not start encouraging coping right away, but rather keep children calm by using physical strategies such as hugging, cuddling or hand-holding. This should be done instead of trying to give a child verbal direction on how to cope when they are in peak distress. Once children get over that initial minute of high distress, Pillai Riddell says, they think children are more able to benefit from parents’ coping-promoting statements. The findings also provide insight for health-care providers and caregivers on how to support children during immunization appointments. 

Researchers say that because preschool children show the prior pain "domino effect," it is critical for health-care providers to try to vaccinate calm preschoolers. Routinely adopting techniques that allow the child to be approached without distressing them prior to the needle (e.g. allowing a child to stay close to their caregiver while viewing a video on a smartphone as a distraction) will help minimize the pain domino effect these findings suggest. Moreover, for both groups, supporting caregivers to avoid distress-promoting behaviours before and during the vaccination will be critical.

“This type of data has never been found in preschoolers before,” said Pillai Riddell. “It’s important to understand post-needle reactions at this age because needle phobia and phobias in general start coming on at five to 10 years of age, so understanding how children can be coached and how parents can have a really powerful role in reducing stress post a vaccination is key.”

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