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Dec. 7, 2021

Ask the Expert: How to prepare children for the COVID-19 vaccine

MSU professor and physician offers suggestions about how to best prepare children for the COVID-19 vaccine.

"Ask the Expert" articles provide information and insights from MSU scientists, researchers and scholars about national and global issues, complex research and general-interest subjects based on their areas of academic expertise and study. They may feature historical information, background, research findings or offer tips.

Now that the COVID-19 vaccine is available for kids 5-11 years, parents across the country are making appointments. But their kids may not be as excited as they are about two shots just weeks apart. Jane Turner, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Human Development in the College of Human Medicine, offers some tips.

How can parents help their potentially shot-reluctant kids understand the importance of the COVID-19 vaccination?

It is helpful for parents to explain to the child why they are getting the vaccine using words that the child can understand, such as, “The vaccine will protect you from getting sick and keep you healthy.”  Older children may understand the concept of immunity: “It helps your body build immunity to fight off infections.”  Most children are pleased to learn, too, that they are doing something good for the community — for their friends and classmates.  

The best source of advice on how to help your child is the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has an excellent website for parents.

For kids who are afraid of needles and/or shots, what can parents say or do to help ease those fears?

  • It is important for parents or caretakers are calm and positive. Children pick up on parents’ anxieties and fears, so be sure you communicate that getting a vaccine is a good thing to do and it will be all right.  
  • Choose your words carefully. Many children are terrified of shots and panic when they hear the word. You can say pinch or poke or pressure or immunization. Don’t mention needle – that’s a scary word, too.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings – don’t brush them away. “I know it is not fun and you are worried about it. We’ll make a plan to make it easier for you, so you can be in control.”  
  • Don’t apologize. You and your child are doing something good. Apologies are not needed and suggest that you are doing something wrong or bad. Keep the message positive.
  • Explain why it is important to get the vaccine – we all do better when we understand why we have to do something.
  • For suggestions on how to make a plan with your child to make the experience easier, go to Healthy Children.

What kind of side effects are kids experiencing with the COVID-19 vaccine, and are those side effects in line with what adults have reported (fever, chills, achiness, etc. for up to 24 hours after the vaccine)?

The most common side effect for children is a sore arm. Children can also experience fever, headache and fatigue but these side effects seem to be less common in children than adults.  When I vaccinate children, I advise them to continue their usual activities including going to school unless they feel sick. I also advise them to move the arm where they got the vaccine and to drink plenty of fluids.   

If so, should parents plan their child's vaccination dates around things like sports practices and school when being sick might be problematic?

I recommend parents schedule the vaccination for the earliest date available and don’t worry too much about side effects. The side effects are usually mild, and the child can continue routine activities.  Perhaps you should avoid getting the vaccine the day before a high-stakes exam in school or the football final playoffs.

Most young children don’t have high-stakes activities. Missing a practice session for a sport or a day in school is trivial compared to getting sick with COVID or giving it to others. With the holidays coming and family gatherings on the near horizon, I recommend getting the vaccine as soon as possible.

Along the same lines, should parents warn their kids they might feel ill after vaccination?

I think parents can tell kids the truth about what to expect: “Your arm will probably be sore for a day or two, and you may feel tired and even get a fever. Don’t worry, you will feel better soon.”

If a child does feel ill after vaccination, how should a parent explain those symptoms to them?

The explanation needs to be appropriate for the child’s age and understanding.  For the younger child: “The vaccine is working and helping your body to be ready to protect you from getting sick;  you will feel better soon.” For the older child: “Your body is responding to the medicine in the vaccine and is building immunity to keep you from getting sick from COVID.”

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