No child loves going to the doctor, but some kids are downright petrified. It's no surprise, considering that most kids don't like being handled by an unfamiliar person, let alone the fact that there's a chance they might get shots. Here are tips on how to help your little one feel a little safer and calmer during his next visit.
While some parents need to have a grandparent or other care provider take kids to doctor's appointments, they should try to make the first visit or two, says Ari Brown, M.D., a Parents advisor and author of the Baby 411 book series. "If a child sees that a mother or father is comfortable in the new locale and that the parent trusts the doctor, then the child will l feel more secure," she explains.
Help your child know what to expect before going to the pediatrician. Purchase a toy doctor kit and a white lab coat for a pretend checkup so he knows what to anticipate. Demonstrate how a doctor might examine his mouth, listen to his heartbeat, or take his blood pressure. Or use a scale to show how his weight might be measured. You can also read children's books that share and illustrate visits to the doctor, such as The Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor, Say "Ahhh!": Dora Goes to the Doctor, and What to Expect When You Go to the Doctor by Heidi Murkoff.
Avoid saying things like "Don't be afraid," "The shot won't hurt," or "Don't cry," because doing so will only make you seem less credible and caring, says Donald Shifrin, M.D., spokesperson for American Academy of Pediatrics and clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. "Instead, say that you know the experience is unpleasant, but it'll be over quickly and you'll get through it together. Reassure him that you'll be by his side the whole time." One caveat: A lot of kids are afraid of the doctor specifically because of shots. Never promise that your child won't need shots (unless you call to confirm ahead of time). Instead, explain that he won't need them during every visit.
Sitting on a high table while separated from the parent can make a child anxious. Consider having her sit on your lap so she feels more secure. As Dr. Brown explains, "They'll believe that nothing bad will happen to them if Mommy or Daddy is protecting them." Kids also don't feel in control because "a stranger is touching them and invading their personal space," explains Dr. Brown. Help your child feel empowered by giving choices, such as asking which ear she wants the pediatrician to examine first, in what order she'd like the doctor to check her chest, eyes, and belly, or if she would like you to hold her hand. Kids also pick up on their parents' cues and sense their comfort level. If you feel at ease, your child will pick up on it and feel better about the experience.
A pacifier or blanket can help calm your child, but a beloved stuffed animal or doll might go the extra mile in allowing the doctor to do a brief "practice examination." Your child will see that nothing bad happens, so she'll probably be fine too. If there are older siblings who are not afraid of the doctor, consider asking if they would mind being examined first. Seeing a big brother or little sister go first will reduce the fear and encourage them to be brave.
How you act after each doctor's visit can help set up a more pleasant experience next time. When you leave the doctor's office, shower your child with hugs, kisses, and praises such as, "You did such a good job, I can't wait to tell Grandma or Daddy how brave you were," suggests Dr. Shifrin. Or take your kid to see a movie or to the playground. Just don't make the treat a condition of good behavior -- if your child isn't able to control his anxiety, then he'll feel bad for losing out on the treat. Also, point out any pleasant things that happened during the visit (maybe the doctor gave your kid a sticker) and repeat how proud everyone will be of him.
When choosing a pediatrician, personality is as important as knowledge and expertise. Some kids will be afraid with any physician, but if your child seems truly scared of the doctor, not just the overall experience, ask him to explain why and talk to other parents who may have the same doctor. If your child's fears are grounded, look for a new one and don't forget to ask other parents for their trusted recommendations.
Dina Roth Port is the author of Previvors: Facing the Breast Cancer Gene and Making Life-Changing Decisions. She has written for publications such as Glamour, Parenting, and The Huffington Post. Visit her website at www.dinarothport.com.
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