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I often imagine how I am going to answer difficult questions and explain confusing and complex issues to my daughter as she gets older. Where do babies come from? What is the difference between boys and girls? Why do I have to go to school? Why do I have to get shots?
Are any of us really ready to answer these questions, or really have a good response ready? Am I going to be able to explain things in a way that makes sense to her? Will I be able to convey the meaning behind these things in a simple manner without downplaying their importance? Well, I’m ready to tackle one of these questions.
Mommy, why do I have to get shots?
Sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves the purpose behind immunizations. Simply put, vaccinations protect us from getting sick. However, it’s actually much larger than this. Being immunized protects our loved ones and our community as well.
When you receive a vaccination, you are being injected with a very small amount of weakened or killed viruses, bacterial toxin, or small parts of the virus or bacteria. When this enters your body, your immune system recognizes it as a foreign invader. Your body begins to produce antibodies (infection fighters) and other defensive cells against the bacteria or virus.
The vaccines do not actually cause an infection, but rather teaches your body what these viruses and bacteria look like so your immune system will recognize them if you are exposed again. The next time you are exposed, your body will immediately begin to fight off the invader. Some people do get a low grade fever after receiving a vaccination. That is a completely normal response and means that your immune system is working well and doing its job.
I mentioned before that being immunized protects your loved ones and your community. This is a very true statement. Have you heard of “Herd Immunity”? Let’s use the flu shot as an example. If you have a small community of 100 people who all received the flu shot except for 1, then the chances of that 1 non-vaccinated person getting the flu is pretty low because the community if overall protected pretty well. However, if you have a group of 100 people and 50 are vaccinated and 50 are not, then the chances of the non-vaccinated getting the flu is much higher because the community is not protected as well.
This is really important when thinking about the very young, very old, and those who have allergies to vaccinations or medical indications preventing them from receiving them. This is why the more people in a community vaccinated, the better protection for everyone.
How to explain this to a kiddo?
I plan to tell my daughter that in her body is an army of good guys that fight against bad germs. This prevents her from getting sick. The shot is full of tools that teaches the army how to fight the germs. Without the shot, the army wouldn’t know how to fight the germs.
When it comes to actually receiving the shot, I would ask her to be tough like the army inside her to fight against the germs.
This is a simple explanation that young kids can understand and that reflects truth. I don’t thinks its necessary to explain herd immunity to young children. That concept is a little too abstract.
How to handle all the questions…
I know how I initially want to answer this question, but what about all of the follow-up questions that are sure to be asked? This depends on how old your child is and how deep you want to go into this conversation. As a nurse practitioner, I am all about kids understanding their anatomy and how their bodies work. I also understand that this can all be very challenging to explain.
Do I really want to try and explain antibodies, antigens, lymphocytes, macrophages, etc. to a 5 year old receiving her kindergarten shots? I’m not sure. We’ll see when I’m actually in that situation. If I choose not to go into detail, will she be picturing tiny little army men running around inside her? Who knows! Kids think so literally.
It’s hard to predict what route the barrage of questions will take. Answer them as honest as you can and as detailed as you desire. Unfortunately, for a lot of difficult conversations and questions we have to “wing it” as parents because we never know when the topics will come up. I think its good to at least know how you want to address different topics. NO WAY am I telling my daughter “you have to get shots because I say so”. I want her to always know that there is a purpose behind everything. Teach your kid how amazing their body is and how vaccinations help them!
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