5 Ways to Take the Scary Out of Kids' Doctor Appointments

girl and mother at doctor office

My daughter has regularly forgotten lots of things: where her shoes were, the order of the ABCs, the mystery of numbers after 10, and flushing the toilet after doing her business. But she has the memory of an elephant when it comes to going to the doctor. Specifically, she remembers shots. And so she is not a fan of going to the doctor's office ... ever again. 

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Evelyn recently turned 4; she's due for a well-child visit and, yes, more shots. I know she's scared, but I also know that doctor visits are a part of staying healthy, so I need to help her get past her fear.

According to Natasha Burgert, MD, a pediatrician in Kansas City, Missouri, it's first important to realize that fear is normal. "Toddlers and preschoolers are going to be scared of the doctor -- and spiders, the dark, and lots of other things," she says. "I encourage parents to stay calm and let their child get reassurance from their calm demeanor."

Beyond staying calm, Burgert has five tips to make a doctor's appointment -- even one that include shots -- less stressful for both kids and parents.

1. Be careful about promising rewards. "I too often overhear parents making promises for good behavior -- treats after the appointment, candy in case of shots, prizes after the visit is over -- even before it begins!" says Burgert. "This is translated to a potentially anxious child as, 'Oh no, Mom is really worried about this. She is already promising Skittles. It must be really bad.'"

Burgert explains, "These promises actually heighten a child's anxiety rather than provide reassurance, because kids will go into the visit anticipating the worst. Treats, hugs, and fun after the appointment are more than appropriate, but save those things for surprises at the end of a great visit."

2. Help them forget any pain points. Whatever you do, don't tell your children in advance that they're getting shots -- that will simply increase any dread. Let the doctor break the news. "If you don't let them know in advance, then at the end of the visit, I simply say, 'You are getting two shots today,'" says Burgert. "'They keep your body healthy and they are important.' That's it."

(You also don't want to promise "no shots," since that makes vaccinations sound even scarier for the times they do have to get them.)

Yep, the shots will hurt, but no sense in dwelling on the pain. After shots or something scary, speak to your child calmly, and quickly change the subject to something else. "Say, 'You did great. I'm so glad your body is healthy and strong. How about some ice cream?'" suggests Burgert. "Kids will give an instant 'YEAH!' because the treat is a surprise! And boom -- shots are forgotten."

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3. Remind kids that the doctor does more than give shots. "Typically, pediatricians spend time talking with our families, examining kids, and getting to know them. But what are we known for? Giving shots," says Burgert. "Because parents often only talk about the doctor's office as 'the place that gives shots.'" 
 
So take note of how you're talking about the doctor's office. If you're not already, say things like, "It's a place we go to talk to the doctor for help. It's where we go when we are sick, so we can feel better. It's a place to see how big you have grown. It's a place to talk with our friend, Dr. Smith," says Burgert. "That type of language will dissociate the focus of the discussion on the most stressful point of the visit -- which is such a small part of the time we spend together -- to the larger part of our time together. "
 

4. Don't hover. If you're constantly holding your children's hands or hugging them, your kids might misinterpret that as your trying to protect them from the doctor. Sure, you want your children to feel safe and secure at your appointment, but you also don't need to act like a buffer between them and their doctor. In fact, you might want to let the doc take the reins and break the ice.

"As pediatricians, we are trained to take care of kids," reminds Burgert. "Give us a chance to see if we can connect and reassure your child on our own. For example, let us approach and chat calmly with your child -- without interruptions -- so that he or she can feel kindness and calmness. Let us try to begin an exam with some explanation and reassuring words, to see how far we can accomplish on our own."

5. Know your kid.
 
When deciding when to tell children that they have a doctor's appointment coming, it's important to know their temperament. Are they empowered by more information? Or will more warning give them more time to get worked up? Tailor your approach to your children's personalities. Either way, Burgert suggests not giving them too much lead time. "I rarely meet a 4-year-old who is welcoming vaccinations because Mom and Dad gave them a week to think about it!" 
 
As for me and my doctor-fearing girl, we're going to take all this advice, and read books about doctor visits, and make sure her lovie comes with us to the appointment. And then, yes, ice cream will be happening!
 

Image via iStock.com/shironosov
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