Parents are rushing by the thousands to register their children for COVID-19 vaccinations, but many of these parents might also be wondering how best to prepare their kids for actually undergoing the procedure.

Prof. Meghan McMurtry smiles against a summer lawn
Dr. Meghan McMurtry

University of Guelph psychology professor Dr. Meghan McMurtry, a professor in the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences who specializes in child health psychology, says while the vaccine may be new, effective methods to prepare kids for pain- and distress-free medical procedures are not.

The director of U of G’s Pediatric Pain, Health and Communication Lab, McMurtry is a clinical and health psychologist with the Pediatric Chronic Pain Program at McMaster Children’s Hospital who has helped prepare hundreds of children and their families to undergo medical procedures. She was also the sole psychologist on the subcommittee for the World Health Organization that drafted guidelines for managing pain in children.

She says some parents believe if their children are nervous or scared about the upcoming vaccinations, it’s best to avoid discussion and potential agitation.

“The opposite is actually true,” she said. “Children have vivid imaginations that fill in the missing details, sometimes imagining things as much worse or scarier than they are in real life.”

She offers these six, science-backed steps to prepare children for the vaccine:

  1. Prepare your child ahead of time by sharing child-friendly information.
  2. Create a coping plan for before, during and after the vaccination and decide what will be needed to help them feel relaxed and calm.
  3. Distract your child while you wait with something fun and interactive.
  4. Use comfort positioning, such as sitting on a lap or beside one another.
  5. Tell your child to take deep breaths, and if they want, to look away or close their eyes.
  6. Talk to your child about what they did well so they remember the test experience in a factual or positive way.

Children who are extremely fearful of needles will need more than the strategies described above, McMurtry said, involving gradually facing their fears through exposure and gaining confidence that what they are most afraid of won’t happen.

Considered a leading expert on these issues, McMurtry is a member of the team behind the CARD system (Comfort, Ask, Relax, Distract), which provides strategies that can be used to help cope before and during vaccination.

She is also the co-principal investigator of the national Help Eliminate Pain in Kids and Adults Team that has undertaken the largest-scale knowledge synthesis and clinical practice guidelines on managing vaccination-related pain and fear. Her team is offering a free virtual workshop for parents of children with high needle fear on Dec. 14.

She can discuss needle-related pain and fear management in detail and is available for interviews.


Dr. Meghan McMurtry