Whether a routine checkup or something more serious, trips to the doctor can be frightening for children. And they’re not much fun for parents either.
But there are things you can do ahead of time to help make the experience positive for your little one. And it’s not just about avoiding the temper tantrum. Encouraging a healthy patient-doctor relationship when children are young has a profoundly positive effect on their overall health as they grow up.
Below are some tips to keep in mind as you prepare your young child for an upcoming visit to the doctor. As always, these are just general recommendations and some may be more or less helpful depending on your child’s age.
Talk about it … but not too much
Many parents think that discussing the visit with your child ahead of time will alleviate their fears. But I’ve found just as often the opposite is true. Talking about the visit too much can make it become a bigger deal than it needs to be. If your child needs shots or a potentially uncomfortable procedure, talk briefly with them about it. But for routine checkups, it’s not necessary to say anything until the morning of the appointment or even in the car on the way to the doctor’s office. It has been helpful for me when discussing doctor’s visits with my own children to not present them as an option. I tell them that seeing the doctor is something we need to do to stay healthy and we do not have a choice about going.
For tweens and teens, it’s important to talk with them about how as they age and gain independence there may be a portion of the visit that the doctor will want to talk to them alone. Stress to them the importance of being open and honest and remind them that the doctor is someone we trust and that whatever they share with the doctor is private.
Sometimes, parents are more scared or anxious than their children. Kids are perceptive and can feed off your energy. If you’re anxious about the appointment, your children can and will pick up on that and become anxious themselves. Be mindful to project calmness and positivity. That will go a long way toward putting your child at ease. Also, be sure not to project your own feelings onto your child. Often parents come in for a visit and say their child is scared about the appointment, when in reality, it’s the parent who is scared.
Children learn by doing. Get some toy doctor tools and have your child give you or their favorite stuffed animal an exam. Use the tongue depressor to look in the mouth and throat, check the ears and nose, take blood pressure, listen to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope, press on the belly. “Playing doctor” will help your child understand and feel more in control. It’s also fun! You can even bring the stuffed animal along to the visit and have the doctor exam it before your child. There are also many children’s books about doctor’s visits that you can read with your child in the days leading up to an appointment that will help them prepare.
As parents, all we want to do is comfort and care for our children. Sometimes, that can include saying things that aren’t 100 percent true. If you know your child is going to get shots, don’t tell them, “I promise it won’t hurt.” When they get the shot and it inevitably hurts, your child’s trust may be compromised and they could even equate going to the doctor with pain. Instead, say, “You’re going to get a shot but it will just feel like a little pinch. They’re very important to help keep you healthy.” Have them pinch your arm so you can demonstrate how little it will hurt. Also avoid promising that they won’t get a shot prior to the visit, no matter the reason for the appointment. When an unplanned injection is needed this can be especially distressing for a child who was promised that there wouldn’t be any.
Follow up with fun
Give your child a small reward after the visit, but avoid making it an incentive or a negotiating tool. Saying, “If you go to the doctor, I’ll buy you a toy” could encourage your child to only comply when offered something in return. Instead, after the visit, go out for ice cream or to a playground. Don’t tell them ahead of time or make the trip contingent on good behavior — just go. If you make that an untold part of the routine, your child will begin to equate the two and will be more agreeable about going to the doctor.
Though it may not always be possible, try to schedule appointments around naptimes and make sure your child is fed prior to the visit. As hard as we try to get patients in and out as quickly as possible, every doctor visit will inevitably include some waiting. Be sure to pack snacks, books or a few small, quiet toys. While in the exam room, point out and talk about interesting tools, diagrams or models. In addition to helping pass the time, distraction can be an invaluable technique when getting through a potentially uncomfortable or painful procedure.
Learn more about Alisa Carlson, MD.