9 Tips to Help Kids Overcome Fear of Doctors

Child Gets Needle Shot from Doctor
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Is your child afraid of going to the doctor? We have the ways you can help toddlers deal with visits to the pediatrician.
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Africa Studio/Shutterstock

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.

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Accompany Your Child

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.

Zoe Berkovic
Zoe Berkovic

Practice at Home

Before you head to an appointment, familiarize your toddler with the tools your pediatrician uses by playing with a toy doctor kit. Put a toy stethoscope around your ears and pretend you’re listening to a stuffed animal breathe, or have your child practice opening his mouth and saying “aah.” Use language he can understand, like, “We’re checking for boo-boos,” but say the correct names of devices so the terms don’t sound alarming if he hears the doctor or nurse use them at the checkup. You can also familiarize him with the process by reading a book; try Corduroy Goes to the Doctor or Doc McStuffins Doctor Bag.

didesign021/Shutterstock
didesign021/Shutterstock

Try a Positive Spin

Avoid giving your child too much warning about an upcoming appointment, since this may lead to unnecessary worry. Wait until the morning of the visit—or even when you’re driving to the office—to tell her where you’re going. Try to sound upbeat: “I’m excited to see your doctor. She takes care of you and helps you stay healthy and strong. ”If your toddler wants to know whether she’ll be getting a shot, answer truthfully, since lying is a surefire way to lose her trust. If she’s due for a vaccine, explain that she’ll feel a little poke in her arm, but point out that it will only hurt for a few seconds. Tell her she can squeeze your hand the whole time and emphasize that the shot will give her “superpowers” against sickness. After the hard part is over, chat about the pleasant aspects of the visit, like getting stickers or a small toy when it’s done, or what you’ll do afterward, such as go to the playground.

Time It Right

Avoid scheduling a doctor’s appointment that conflicts with your toddler’s meals or nap time, as he’ll probably behave better if he’s fed and well rested. Since you never know how long you’ll have to wait to be seen, bring along healthy snacks, small toys, coloring books, your child’s lovey, and anything else you think will keep him occupied (and steer him away from the germ-covered waiting-room toys). Try asking him which fish in the tank is his favorite or what he thinks of the framed pictures on the wall, which will help keep him happy and distracted.

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Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Stay Close

A toddler may feel vulnerable if she’s lying down on the table while the pediatrician towers over her. Letting her sit on your lap can help make her feel safe and protected. Doctors and nurses generally have no problem checking vitals and doing most of the exam while a kid is cuddled up with a caregiver.

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MichaelJung/shutterstock.com

Keep Him Calm

Let your child have some control by giving him choices. Ask which chair he’d like to sit in or which arm he’d like to have his blood pressure taken on. You might even see if the doctor is willing to demonstrate a procedure on your child’s stuffed animal first so that he can see exactly what’s going to happen. During vaccinations, try engaging your child’s senses. Studies show that sucking on something sweet (like a lollipop or a pacifier dipped in sugar water), hearing a favorite song, or looking at interesting objects (like bubbles or a sparkly wand) can divert his attention. Another tactic is to pretend your fingers are candles and ask your child to breathe in with you, and then blow out the candles one by one. This technique will relax him, reduce his heart rate, and create a positive association for next time.

 

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Bring a Favorite Stuffed Animal or Toy

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.

Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock
Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock

Offer Something to Look Forward To

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.
 

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Shutterstock

Trust Your Instincts

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.

Sources: Carrie Spindel Bashoff, Psy.D., a psychologist in West Orange, New Jersey; Kate Eshleman, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist at Cleveland Clinic; Lisa Beltran, a certified child-life specialist at San Diego State University; Dina Roth Port, the author of Previvors: Facing the Breast Cancer Gene and Making Life-Changing Decisions

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