Getting a shot does not have to be traumatizing

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I have written previously about the fear of needles in the context of COVID vaccine hesitancy. This NPR story got me thinking about this again (Dembosky, 2024). First, we have children who are traumatized by getting shots that their conditioning continues into adulthood with the end result of less likely to volunteer to get important medical care, including vaccines. Second, we have caregivers who are traumatized by their traumatized children. It cannot be easy to know that you are the one who okayed the shot that has resulted into your child screaming. I can’t help but wonder how many people stand behind an anti-vax principle because they don’t want to admit that they are terrified of needles or can’t bear to watch their child be terrified of needles. And third, it’s traumatic for the healthcare professionals, too. In the article, one physician said doing this to children made her decide against going into pediatrics.

The major point of the article is that it doesn’t have to be this way. One physician argues that there are a number of things healthcare professionals can do to make getting shots less traumatic.

  1. Use a topical numbing cream. Dentists figured that one out a long time ago (thank God!). We’re beyond time for other healthcare professionals to do the same. Numbing cream should be used routinely for children and offered to adults.
  2. For babies, while getting a shot, let them breastfeed or give them a sugar-dipped pacifier. Anything that will comfort them will help.
  3. For toddlers and older children—and I’d add adults even, distraction, distraction, distraction. The NPR story suggests “teddy bears, pinwheels or bubbles.” They missed an obvious one, though: digital distractions. These include movies, games, and music. I had a dentist who had a ceiling-mounted monitor and headphones. Patients would pick a movie to watch during a dental cleaning or other procedure. After the appointment, the dental staff would write in the patient’s chart where they were in the movie so they could pick up there on their next visit. As another example, I once had to see a dental specialist. The dentist and assistant played classic rock music during my visit—and they both sang along to the music. They were pretty good! The best I could do was sort of hum along—you try humming with your mouth hanging open! They appreciated my participation nonetheless. I never had a reason to see them again, but I would have gone back in a heartbeat.
  4. “No more pinning kids down on an exam table.” Their caregiver should hold them. In retrospect, that seems obvious.


Following coverage of classical conditioning or during coverage of phobias would both be fine places to discuss this topic with students. Here are a couple possible discussion questions.

  1. Have you (or your child) ever been offered a topical numbing cream before getting a shot? If so, what was your experience like? If not, would you consider asking for a topical numbing cream next time?
  2. We discussed a few different distractions that could be useful with children and adults. What other distractions can you think of that may be helpful for children, yourself, or other adults?

The NPR story ends with suggesting that these techniques could also work with people with dementia who, like children, have no idea why someone is hurting them. There is reason to believe that the same anti-pain techniques would work with this population, too: “Numbing cream, distraction, something sweet in the mouth and perhaps music from the patient's youth that they remember and can sing along to.”  The article ends with this quote from one of the doctor’s interviewed for the story: “It’s worthy of study, and it’s worthy of serious attention.”

If you’d like to give your students a little experimental design practice, divide students into small groups. Give each group a specific intervention: numbing cream, distraction, something sweet in the mouth, music from a patient’s youth. The population they are looking at are people with dementia. Students should keep in mind that dementia is not inevitable with aging (Fishman, 2017), so as they think about their sample and their intervention, they should focus on dementia, not age. Groups should identify and operationally define their dependent variable as well as identify and operationally define their independent variable. Students also need to consider the ethical challenges in conducting research with participants who are unable to give their consent to participate. Ask students to review section 3.10 of the APA ethics code and be sure to include in their study description how they would handle informed consent (American Psychological Association, 2017). After discussion, invite volunteers from each group to share their designs.



American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct.

Dembosky, A. (2024, February 13). Shots can be scary and painful for kids. One doctor has a plan to end needle phobia. NPR.

Fishman, E. (2017). Risk of developing dementia at older ages in the united states. Demography, 54(5), 1897–1919.


About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.