Katie Taylor headshotCertified Child Life Specialist, Child Life on Call founder, and expert Piper + Enza contributor Katie Taylor shares her “Covid vaccine prep for kids under 5” tips to help families with little ones be prepared for vaccination day.

The CDC has stated that children from the ages of 6 months to 5 years are now eligible for the Covid-19 Vaccine. Despite the number of experts and careful thought that went into this decision, you may now be thinking, “Now the hard part really begins. How do I tell my young child they have to get a shot?” Well, we can help! Read below to learn more about Covid vaccine prep for kids under 5.

As parents, our job is to learn as much as possible to set up our kids for success in life. The hard part is setting them up and then allowing them to cope as an individual. We hope these tips help you feel empowered and more confident as you approach this very specific Covid-19 vaccination appointment.

As you know, a 6-month-old functions very differently from a 5-year-old, so let’s break it down into more manageable age groups. Regardless of the difference in age and development, you will see three consistent themes throughout each preparation:

  1. The more calm, confident, and compassionate you are, the more equipped you will feel to support your child.
  2. Honest, simple information will be enough to explain and answer your child’s questions about the vaccine.
  3. Validate your child’s experience, regardless of your subjective opinion about how they are coping.
6 to 18 months:

Children as young as 9 months old can benefit from preparation as they are beginning to understand the relationship between cause and effect . You may notice at this age that your child drops a spoon from their high chair and waits for you to pick it up. You may notice that your child is showing interest in push-button toys. You may notice that your child associates clapping with smiling, as they’ve seen that previously when they clap, they receive a positive reaction from their caregivers.

We can use this emerging cause and effect milestone as a means to prepare for the Covid-19 vaccine. Practice sitting with your child in your lap and narrate “now, it’s time for our vaccine, let’s count to three!” At the number three, pull out their favorite toy to hold (this is my favorite!). Do this several times in the days leading up to the vaccine. Narrating positive statements during this preparation like, “We are going to get our vaccine, which is a shot. Mommy will stay with you the whole time. Mommy loves you so much.”

When you arrive at the appointment, tell your nurse about your coping plan to show the toy when the shot goes in. Settle into the position, count to three, and show the toy. This small act can help your child feel well equipped and familiar with the plan, despite being in a new situation.

18 months to 3 years

Your growing child is understanding that they have an active role in the world. In fact, their world is very egocentric and is all about them! For these young children, employing them to be the “doctor” in any preparation will help prepare them for the shot.

Make time to actively “play” vaccine clinic. Put their stuffed animals in a row, talk to them like you are the doctor and model the upcoming experience. Say something like, “Ok, my stuffies, we need to drive to a doctor’s appointment to get your Covid-19 vaccine. Mommy will stay with you the whole time. Let’s walk in, and find a seat. A choice for your toddler moment: ask your toddler where you should sit. Tell the stuffed animal that the nurse is going to give them medicine in a shot that goes in their leg/arm (clarify with your medical team before arriving). Use any toy to act out the event. Let your toddler help you make the stuffed animals feel better after giving them the shot. Let your toddler dictate the play session.

Begin practicing coping skills with this group to implement during the shot. Whether it’s blowing bubbles, a pinwheel, counting to 5, or squeezing a ball, keep this practice consistent so at the appointment, your child has already mastered the coping skill. 

3 to 5 Years

This age group is fun, full of wonder and magic. However, it’s important to know that children at this age have a difficult time separating what is “real” versus what is “pretend.” For this reason, it’s important to identify misconceptions that your child may have. 

Start this preparation by asking questions like, “do you remember when mommy had to get the Covid 19 vaccine? That is called a shot. Do you know what a shot is?” Allow them to explain their thoughts and emphasize the important roles vaccines play in their lives. “Your brother got the vaccine, your friends got the vaccine, your teacher got the vaccine, and now it’s your turn.”

Because you are preparing your child, you have the opportunity to set them up with a foundation of honesty and support. Playing into your child’s level of understanding by talking about “superheroes” or “princesses” getting the vaccine to protect people may help establish a connection to the cause. 

When preparing your child, use simple and honest language to describe the sensory experiences and sequence of events. “First we will drive to the clinic. Then you and I will sit together. The nurse will clean your arm/leg. The medicine will go in with a shot/needle. Then the band-aid goes on, and then you’re done! And then we get in our car and come home.”

Asking questions like, “what do you think it will feel like?” will help you identify misconceptions and reinforce the concept of the event being fast and the band-aid signaling that it is over. Talk about signing a song or watching a favorite iPad show during the preparation.

The importance of follow up

Your child may cry, scream, fight, laugh, or not react at all to the vaccine. Any reaction is OK because it is their reaction. Our job as parents is to use our words to validate the experience they are having with love and compassion.

When the vaccine is over, reinforce the positive. “You sat in the chair!” or “You watched your show!” no matter how big or how small.

We hope these “Covid vaccine prep for kids under 5” tips will help you and your little one feel ready for a big day that so many of us have been waiting for.

Katie Taylor is certified child life specialist, podcast host and CEO + Founder Child Life On Call, and a Piper+Enza expert contributor.