Going to the doctor can be a scary experience for a child. The grown ups are big, use big words and have weird looking tools. Furthermore, children often don’t know what to expect, which adds another layer of anxiety for them. Here are some things you can do to help make going to the doctor a little easier.
Note: these tips can be helpful for sick and well visits but are mostly intended for well visits and I will address differences with sick visits at the end.
A successful visit begins with scheduling. If you are booking your child’s physical, schedule far enough in advance so you can choose the time of day that works best for you and your child. Avoid scheduling during naptime and make sure you allow yourself plenty of time for the visit so you aren’t rushed, especially if you have another child to get from school or another appointment to get to. Pack books, toys, comfort objects, and water to keep your child occupied. (No, we won’t judge you if you bring the iPad and your child is happily watching a video.) You never know what might be happening in the office that day to make the doctor run behind. See my post about why doctors tend to run behind here. It may be best to schedule non-urgent well checks for older children in the summer as opposed to during the height of flu season, which is a time when we tend to be overbooked and run behind. The one thing I discourage parents from bringing is snacks because:
- Snacks become a choking hazard if a child starts crying with a mouthful of food
- The mouth is difficult to examine when full of food
- Food makes the office really messy
- Overall you want to avoid teaching your child that food is the answer to boredom
Let your child know in advance when you will be going to see the doctor. For toddlers you can tell them that morning. For older children, especially if they have to miss school, let them know a few days in advance so they aren’t caught off guard and so they can ask questions about what will happen. Set expectations telling them they will be talking to the doctor about their health and having a physical examination. As kids get older, they worry about the genital exam so it is important to let them know it is ok for the doctor to check and you will stay with them. For teens, reassure them that they can have privacy with the doctor so they can talk openly and honestly about their concerns and have a private exam.
Don’t tell your child definitively that they aren’t getting shots. Sometimes a child is behind on immunizations or needs a booster that the parent is not aware of and it is much harder to get it done if they are promised no shots. It is ok to tell your child that you don’t know if shots are needed and they can ask the doctor at the visit. (You can always call us in advance with questions.) Also, reassure them that shots are an important part of preventing diseases and are very quick. Plus, most pediatricians have stickers or other prizes for when they are done!
Read and Teach
One of the reasons I love the show Doc Mcstuffins so much is that young kids who watch it are very prepared for what happens during an exam. I love the idea of a child bringing a toy doctor kit and a stuffed animal or doll to examine at the same time they get examined. I find that children are much more at ease when Teddy Bear is also having his ears checked! There are lots of books about your child’s favorite character, like Elmo or Dora, going to the doctor. We used to read the book about Dora going to the dentist with my son when he was younger and it made dental visits a lot less scary. Try reading about the check up in advance!
Parents need to be both emotionally and physically strong when they take a scared child to see the doctor. Try to avoid saying things like “It’s ok” or “It won’t hurt” or “Nothing is happening”. These phrases invalidate how your child is feeling. Also, I don’t recommend constant distraction attempts with toys or singing or even bribery when the child is crying during an exam. It never works to calm the child in my experience. The best thing to do is to hold your child and tell him/her that you know they are scared and you will stay with them. Hold your child tightly so the doctor can perform the exam quickly. To be honest, too many hugs and kisses to calm a child during an exam only prolongs the agony so stay strong and hold tight and save all of the love for the end.
Taking a sick child to the doctor
Going to a sick visit is very different from going for a well check up. Your child doesn’t feel well, different things may happen and you don’t have much time to prepare. However, make sure to grab your child’s favorite lovey or comfort object on your way out the door and in the car tell your child that the doctor is going to help figure out what is wrong and how to make things better. Again, reassure them that you will stay with them the whole time. Avoid making promises like saying they don’t need any tests done. Sometimes a painful procedure may be needed like cleaning the ears, swabbing the throat or a poke on the finger for a blood test.
In the end, a trip to the doctor can be an enjoyable way for your child to learn about health and safety and can be a great bonding experience between your child and your pediatrician. If you have any questions in advance or concerns about how your child will respond, just call. Your pediatrician wants you and your child to have a good visit!