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Bubbles, breathwork or bribery? If your kid has needle phobia, try these tips

When comic artist and physician Grace Farris discovered that her young son had developed needle phobia, she knew she needed help — especially with yearly flu shots and two COVID vaccines in his near future. So Farris turned to medical literature and experts to learn how breathing techniques, distraction devices and even bribery can help kids who fear the dreaded jab.

Dr. Grace Farris narrates, "In 2020, as my 8-year-old got his flu shot, I realized that he had developed a needle phobia." Farris is seen holding her son at the doctor's office while he squeezes his eyes shut and exclaims, "I can't do it! I can't!"
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As a doctor, I felt pretty bad about this. Shouldn't my kid be a model patient? What had I done wrong? What could I do to help him get over this? Farris looks at a social media post on her phone. There's a young girl with a bandaid on her arm and the post says, "We won't know if Agnes got the placebo ..."  Farris is thinking, "Wow! These kids enrolling in the COVID vaccine trials are amazing!"
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Fast-forward to fall 2021, and three shots loomed in our future. The flu shot, the first COVID vaccine, and the second COVID vaccine. Three needles with faces representing each vaccine are standing up. The flu shot says, "Like pumpkins, I come back each fall!" The first COVID vaccine has sunglasses on and its pointing at the second COVID vaccine while saying,  "We're the new cool guys in town!"
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After a brief doom spiral, it occurred to me that I should do what I would do with any other clinical quandary: conduct a literature review and consult some experts. A laptop is shown with PubMed's website. And a health expert with a stethoscope around her neck is waving at the viewer.
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My review confirmed that many kids, and even a lot of adults, struggle with needle phobia. One study reported that up to a third of hospital workers put off their flu shots because of a fear of needles. Two health workers are shown deep in thought in the emergency room. One is thinking, "Oof, needles!" The other is thinking, "Yikes, needles."
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But with three shots coming up, I needed solutions! Some pre-COVID studies suggested distraction with screen time, but after two years of seemingly endless screen use, I was skeptical that this would work as a powerful distraction. Farris' two sons sit with their digital devices. There's an arrow pointing at the littlest son that says "My younger son didn't have a needle issue."
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The pediatricians I spoke to had some other suggestions. Joslyn Nolasco, a pediatrician at UCSF, says she sees needle phobia a lot. Nolasco stands in her doctor's coat wearinga. stethoscope. She says, "We remind parents not to lie, but not to dwell on it or discuss it too much, as it will make anxiety grow. We use deep breathing, distraction with toys and bubbles ..."
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Farris says: My kids are a little old for bubbles, but Nolasco says there are also devices called "ShotBlockers" that can help with desensitization at the injection site.
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What is a ShotBlocker? A small, half-moon shaped piece of plastic with blunt nubs distributed across the device is shown. There's an arrow pointing at the device that says "Blunt nubs distribute pressure around the injection site." Nolasco stands below the device saying, "Sometimes just discussing that we have these tools to use helps older kids get over the hump."
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For younger kids, Nolasco suggested magic or pretend play. A young girl with pigtails holds up a muscled arm. She's dressed in hot pink pants with lightening bolts, a lighter pink shirt that says "Shot Girl!" and a yellow cape. Above her, text reads: A new superhero!
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Most of the techniques I read about seemed to boil down to three main categories. Two of these are written on paper list taped and stapled up. One reads: Distraction. TV, Telling jokes, Books, question mark. The other reads: Bribery, frequently my go-to. TV, Candy, Pokemon cards, Toys. A bag of gummy worms lies below these lists along with a book titled Bear Goes To The Doctor!
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More taped up lists describe the last technique: physical maneuvers. ShotBlockers, The cough trick (a quick cough before, during and after the shot), squeeze a foam ball, or pant like a dog. Box breathing is another technique. Inhale for 4 seconds. Hold breath for 4 seconds. Exhale for 4 seconds. Hold again for 4 seconds. Lastly, in some cases, therapy is also an effective next step.
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After all this data gathering, I can't say that I'm proud of what happened next. As usual, I opted for the path of least resistance: bribery. Farris stands next to her two kids looking skeptically at her. She says, "You know, I've heard that some parents are letting their kids curse when they get the COVID shot ..."
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Swearing wasn't a medical recommendation. Just something other parents had tried. Farris' oldest son says, "Really?!"
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Farris wears a mask and coat inside a pharmacy. Her son sits on a chair next to a health worker giving him a shot. He is shown exclaiming expletives. I told the pharmacist our plan and the promise of vaccine-accompanies cursing did seem to help. I just hope it doesn't become a habit.
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Farris holds her phone and on the screen is a view of Google's homepage search. Farris has typed in "how to stop kid swearing".
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Dr. Grace Farris is an associate professor of medicine at the University of Texas at Austin's Dell Medical School. Her book, Mom Milestones, comes out in the spring. You can find her on Instagram @coupdegracefarris.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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