How to prepare a three year old for vaccinations

By the time your child is three you’ll have had a few rounds of different vaccinations, but when they were little it was easy to sneak them in and they’d be instantly forgotten. At three, our kids are starting to have anxiety, fear and understand pain. They also ask questions and want to understand what’s happening and can have memories that affect them, especially of things that were traumatic. So if you’ve got the three year old vaccinations coming up – which are currently injections in both arms in the UK given at three years and four months – you might be a little worried about how they’re going to handle it and what you should do to prepare them for their vaccinations.

Note that I am not a medical professional and this post contains no medical advice. I’m offering practical parenting advice to help support you – if you have any medical questions whatsoever you should talk to your doctor or nurse.

If you’re in the UK the NHS has a good childhood vaccination timeline with more information about all the vaccinations that are given but if you want more information about any vaccination then it’s a good idea to book an appointment with your health visitor, GP or pediatrician and make sure you’re happy and understand the vaccinations and reasons for giving them.

Try to relax yourself

The first thing I’m going to say is that I’m a ball of anxiety for my son and I think it’s normal to have worries about how they’re going to handle something. That being said, they totally pick up on your anxiety, fear and nervousness, so the happier, more prepared and relaxed you are, the more it will help them too.

To tell them or not to tell them?

There are two options regarding the three year old vaccinations. You can either prepare your child by telling them about the vaccination and what to expect in advance, or you can decide not to tell them and instead simply distract them whilst it’s happening and hope they don’t really notice. Both options are entirely up to you and it might be worth having a chat with your health visitor or nurse in advance to see what strategy works. Children are all different and some might ask a lot of questions and want to know what happens, whilst others are happy to go with the flow and something unexpected doesn’t phase them. There’s definitely no right or wrong answer here.

How to tell a child about vaccinations

I personally think it’s good to inform children in general about why we have vaccinations and what they do. Some suggestions for words that appeal to children would be “arm medicine” to describe the vaccination, “scratchy” to describe the sensation of the needle and then to talk about how the vaccination works, you can simply say that the medicine is full of “little warriors” or “superheroes” that will fight off any illness. We can tell them that it’ll stop them getting sick, as by three they should understand the concept of being sick not feeling very good. Make sure you emphasize that the scratch will be very quick – over in a second – and that there will be a reward!

I personally recommend this YouTube video by Dr Ranj Singh, a well known peadiatrician who created a puppet show called “Get Well Soon” to explain different medical concepts to young children. He has an episode specifically explaining vaccinations.

You might not want to specifically mention you’re going to the doctor today for vaccinations if you think your child has anxiety about it, but if they’ve already talked about how vaccinations aren’t scary and are something to help us previously then they’ll have a good understanding of what’s happening once they’re there.

A good tactic is also to practice on toys, and you can even take their toy with them and pretend play that the toy is getting an injection too.

Why you might decide not to tell them

If your child is the type to worry about things in advance and to make situations worse in their head, then telling them that they’re going to need medicine or might be in pain could just cause them problems sleeping or cause them to worry. If your child has a fear of injections or doesn’t like going to the doctor, you may find that telling them in advance just results in a lot of tantrums, tears and problematic behaviour which isn’t good for either of you. For some children, keeping it a secret until you’re there might be the best bet and there’s no right or wrong way of doing this. The aim is to simply figure out which will help your child have as positive an experience as possible.

Make sure they’re dressed in practical clothing

Different vaccinations go in different locations and it’s worth double checking where the vaccinations are given before the appointment. At the moment the NHS gives the three year vaccinations as two injections, one in each arm. Many places will provide two nurses and give both injections at once to get it over and done with quickly. Younger vaccinations can also be given in the the thighs. This may vary based on your health provider so it’s worth checking.

It’s important to dress appropriately in clothing that doesn’t require much dressing / undressing during the appointment as you want to have as little fuss and time spent as possible to minimize any drama. So for the arms, make sure their dressed in a t-shirt or short sleeved clothing where the sleeves aren’t tight on the arms at all. If you know there are leg injections then loose trousers that can easily be rolled up are ideal.

Have something to distract them in the waiting room before the vaccinations

I don’t know about you but I can’t remember the last time any sort of medical clinic ran exactly on time and being in a strange place surrounded by lots of people can be quite confusing for a young child and you don’t want them to be unhappy or crying before they even get to the nurse.

On the opposite side of the coin, my son thinks that the GP waiting room is a soft play, filled with padded benches and other peoples bags to rifle through – yes really, and of course, this is a space where people are feeling unwell and don’t want to be harrassed by children with sticky fingers and a rather blase attitude to personal space and property ownership.

Therefore it’s best for both you, and everyone else, if you have come prepared with a few distractions and entertainment to hand!

How to distract a child who’s having vaccinations

We all have ways of distracting our kids when we need to and I’d love to hear your favourite ways in the comments! For me, I can distract my son with a lollipop or his favourite treat, with a song, with silly faces or a hand puppet. Others may like to hold their favourite toy, or offering them a choice like “Do you want this sticker, or this sticker?” will make them stop and think for long enough to not be interested in what the nurse is doing! The important thing is to have a little think in advance about what will capture your child’s imagination just for a few minutes, as that’s all it takes, and that you take something with you if needed.

How to reward a child for getting their jabs

Everyone likes a treat and kids are definitely motivated by rewards. It’s important that if you promise them something you follow through with it. What the reward is will depend on what your child wants, but it can be as something as simple as a sticker or a lollipop, a trip out to their favourite ice cream shop or a new toy or game that they’ve been hankering for.

You should also give them lots of positive encouragement by telling them how brave they were and how proud of them you are and talk about how nice the doctor / nurse was so that they associate medical professionals with positivity.

Find out how to prepare a three year old - and yourself - for their next set of vaccinations. Go in without anxiety or fear.

So here’s a quick breakdown again on how to prepare a three year old for their vaccinations (and yourself too!)

  1. Find out what vaccinations your child is having and where they’ll be administered.
  2. Decide how much information to give you child in advance, to best prepare them as suits their personality.
  3. Keep calm and relaxed as they can pick up on your anxiety.
  4. Dress them appropriately in loose clothing that requires minimal fuss for the vaccinations to be administered.
  5. Have something to distract them and keep them happy, both in the waiting room, whilst the vaccinations are administered and after.
  6. Have a reward – for both of you!

Parenting is damn hard and there’s a lot of things for us to worry about. These days there’s a lot of discussion online about the negativity surrounding vaccinations. I won’t go into that, but I will say that pushing past the online scares, as well as your own fears, to do what is best for your kids all whilst staying calm and never letting them know you were worried deserves a big gold parenting star – AKA your favourite dessert or a special coffee from Starbucks!

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4 thoughts on “How to prepare a three year old for vaccinations

  1. Jenna says:

    I don’t tell mine, and they come to all of my dr’s appointments with me so didn’t even realize it was for them. I had them seated on my lap facing towards me so they didn’t even see it coming. Just said “just a quick checkup, sharp scratch” and it was done in seconds. My daughter was fine with it but my son was very upset for the rest of the day even after we went to his favourite ice cream place but by the next day he had totally forgotten it ever happened.

  2. Rachael says:

    I was definitely more nervous for Emily’s vaccinations than she was, but I think it is good to prepare them. She asked a lot of questions about everything and wanted to know why we were going to the doctor and what was wrong, so I had to cover it in the car. She took everything in her stride but I can see how some more anxious children who might be scared would benefit from talking about it in advance. We love Dr Ranj’s videos.

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