9 Tips to Help Kids Overcome Their Fear of Doctors

Is your child afraid of going to the doctor? We have the ways you can help toddlers deal with visits to the pediatrician.

Child Gets Needle Shot from Doctor
Photo: didesign021/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 safer and calmer during his next visit.

01 of 09

Accompany Your Child

mom holding baby in doctor's office

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.

02 of 09

Practice at Home

Doctor Play Kit
Zoe Berkovic

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 their mouth and saying “aah.”

Use language your child can understand, like, “We’re checking for boo-boos,” but say the correct names of devices so the terms don’t sound alarming if they hear the doctor or nurse use them at the checkup.

You can also familiarize your child with the process by reading a book; try Corduroy Goes to the Doctor or Doc McStuffins Doctor Bag.

03 of 09

Try a Positive Spin on Going to the Doctors

Child Gets Needle Shot from Doctor

Avoid giving your child too much warning about an upcoming appointment since this may lead to unnecessary worry. Instead, 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 they’ll get a shot, answer truthfully since lying is a surefire way to lose their trust. If your child is due for a vaccine, explain that they’ll feel a little poke in their arm, but point out that it will only hurt for a few seconds.

Tell your little one they can squeeze your hand the whole time and emphasize that the shot will give them “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.

04 of 09

Time Your Child's Doctor Visit Right

6 Secrets of Pediatrician Parents

Avoid scheduling a doctor’s appointment that conflicts with your toddler’s meals or nap time, as they’ll probably behave better if they're fed and well-rested.

Since you never know how long you’ll have to wait to be seen, bring healthy snacks, small toys, coloring books, your child’s lovey, and anything else you think will keep them occupied (and steer them away from the germ-covered waiting room toys).

Try asking your child which fish in the tank is their favorite or what they think of the framed pictures on the wall, which will help keep them happy and distracted.

05 of 09

Stay Close To Your Child

doctor meeting child and mom
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

A toddler may feel vulnerable if they're lying down on the table while the pediatrician towers over them.

Letting your child sit on your lap can help make them feel safe and protected. Doctors and nurses generally have no problem checking vitals and doing most of an exam while a kid is cuddled up with a caregiver.

06 of 09

Keep Your Child Calm

pediatrician and baby

Let your child have some control by giving them choices. Ask which chair they’d like to sit in or which arm they’d like to have their 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 they can see exactly what will happen.

During vaccinations, try engaging your child’s senses. Studies suggest 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 to keep your child calm is to pretend your fingers are candles, ask your child to breathe in with you, and then blow out the candles one by one. This technique will relax them, reduce their heart rate, and create a positive association for next time.

07 of 09

Bring a Favorite Stuffed Animal or Toy To Distract Your Child

Girl laying on floor with stuffed animal

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 they'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 sibling go first will reduce the fear and encourage them to be brave.

08 of 09

Offer Something to Look Forward To

child being weighed by doctor
Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock

How you act after each doctor's visit can help create 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 can't control their anxiety, they'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 them.

09 of 09

Trust Your Child's Instincts When It Comes To Feeling Afraid

doctor talking to worried mother

When choosing a pediatrician, personality is as important as knowledge and expertise. Some kids will be afraid of any physician, but if your child seems truly scared of the doctor, not just the overall experience, ask your child 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

Additional reporting by Rachel Rabkin Peachman
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