How to prepare your 4-year-old for their vaccinations

The surprise no four-year-old wants.
The surprise no four-year-old wants. Photo: Getty

Turning four is a big milestone in the life of a preschooler. Maybe they will have a party. Perhaps there will be cake. There will almost certainly be presents. But then there is another ‘surprise’ – a new round of vaccinations!

The four-year-old vaccinations can be more of a challenge than the routine needles children have when they are babies and toddlers. What has changed? Your child has! At four years of age their understanding of the procedure is acute, which could make the whole process more stressful for them and you.

So what is the best way to approach ‘V’ day? Michaela chose to “spring it” on her daughter. “I told her half an hour before the appointment,” she says. 

“My daughter is a very anxious child and I didn’t want her to build it up in her head and worry about it,” Michaela explains.

This strategy worked well, and Michaela says that her daughter didn’t shed a single tear.

Zanni took the alternative approach with her daughter and gave her plenty of warning. “I told her exactly what vaccinations are and what it would entail,” she says.

As a precaution Zanni used a numbing cream and told her daughter that it might help with the pain.

“She was really into the idea of it all. The Dr was very friendly. She said it hurt a bit and then said it was the "best fun she'd ever had". The Dr was a bit worried by that,” Zanni recalls.

Dr Maureen Boyd has been vaccinating children at her practice for over 20 years. She says that when it comes to preparing children “honesty is the best policy.”

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“I’m not in favor of tricking kids or springing it on them without any warning,” she says.

Instead Dr Boyd’s advice is to talk to children about milestones and explain that part of turning four means they have to have their vaccinations.

“Tell them that everyone has to have it, it’s part of being four, It’s about keeping you healthy and stopping you from getting sick,” she explains.  

Dr Boyd also warns that parents shouldn’t make too much fuss about it. “If you build it up into a really big deal then it will be a really big deal for the kid. The ones that are least anxious are the ones to whom it is just something that has to get done.” 

Most children are concerned that their vaccinations will hurt. Dr Boyd says that it is important not to “double cross” children – “be honest,” she says. “Tell them that it probably will hurt a bit, but it will only hurt for a moment.”

Another recommendation is to have something fun planned to do after the appointment. “It doesn’t have to be a treat, it could just be a trip to the park or the library. It just helps shift the focus of the day away from the needles,” Dr Boyd explains.

Psychologist Martine Prunty agrees with this advice, in addition she suggests using books to help prepare children.

“It's a good idea to use stories with characters that go to the doctor, such as Elmo,” she explains. “They tell a story about why it happens which normalises that it's a bit scary at first, but that in the end it's all fine and there is often a reward.”

For some parents taking their child for their vaccinations causes a “double whammy” of anxiety – stress about how the child will cope and stress caused by their own fear of needles. Tracey found herself in this situation recently. 

“I was terrified of needles as a kid,” she says. “I still feel very anxious about visiting the doctor.” 

Tracey has been working on her phobia but in the meantime her husband will be taking their son for his four-year-old vaccinations.

“I don’t want my son to see me freaking out,” she says. “I don’t want him to grow up being scared of doctors.”

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