When your toddler is afraid of the doctor

Fear of the doctor is a common problem, among toddlers and adults alike. Doctor’s visits can be infrequent enough that you don’t have to do much more than grit your teeth and get Baby through them if they&;s afraid, but for their health and for your own state of mind, it’s often best in the long run to address any fears that Baby has about visiting the doctor while they are still young.

The doctor can be scary for a number of reasons, from the unfamiliarity of the setting and unfamiliarity with the doctor as a person to the pain that Baby might associate with the visit. If they have strong memories of getting their last round of shots, for example, that might have an impact on how they feel about the doctor now. Sometimes parents even contribute to the problem by hinting at the idea that the trip might be scary, or by being nervous about their toddlers’ reactions. To help Baby have a better time at the doctor’s office, there are a few things you can do before, during, and after the visit.

Before the visit

You can start by preparing Baby for the visit ahead of time.

  • Normalize the doctor’s office: Buy Baby a few children’s books about going to the doctor, and read them to them occasionally. You could also buy a stethoscope or a toy doctor kit for Baby to play with, and even act out “going to the doctor” scenes with them.
  • Visit ahead of time: If Baby has an extreme fear of the doctor’s office, you could consider taking them to the office ahead of time to get them used to spending time in the space.
  • Answer questions honestly but simply: If Baby has questions about what happens at the doctor’s office, answer them with toddler-friendly words, and don’t over-explain your answers, which might confuse them, but don’t hold back the truth, either. If you tell them that getting a vaccine “won’t hurt a bit,” or “you won’t even fee it!” they might be less scared about this visit, but in the future, they might put less trust in your reassurances.
  • Ask questions: Try to ask them what they think every so often, to see if they are confused about how things normally go. If Baby tells you what they are afraid of, you may be able to reassure them in a more specific way than by telling them, “Everything is going to be fine.”
  • Get Baby involved: Ask Baby if they have questions for the doctor, and write them down to ask when you’re both there. When it’s time to head to the doctor’s office, have Baby pack a few familiar toys or books to play with.

During the visit

Once you’re in the doctor’s office, there are a few things you can do to make Baby more comfortable.

  • Provide reassurance: Many toddlers are afraid that their parents will leave during their appointment. Make sure to emphasize to Baby that you’ll be in the room the whole time, or even keep them on your lap for the majority of the visit.
  • Keep Baby distracted: This is where favorite toys or books come in handy.
  • Don’t lie or downplay any fear: Avoid telling Baby that a shot won’t hurt, or to not be scared. Instead, tell them that everything that’s happening is to keep them healthy, and that it will be over soon.
  • Reassure Baby that this isn’t punishment: Your toddler might think this visit is punishment, so gently assure them that they didn’t do anything wrong.

After the visit

You might remember getting pretzel sticks or stickers after your own appointments when you were young, and in this same way, Baby definitely deserves a small reward for braving the appointment. Baby‘s pediatrician may provide this reward for you, but if they don’t, it doesn’t hurt to have something tasty or something shiny stashed in your back pocket to offer Baby at the end of the appointment. This also gives them something to look forward to after the next visit.

Another thing to keep in mind is how Baby gets along with the doctor. Obviously, some parts of the visit won’t be pleasant no matter who the doctor is. But if you don’t feel like the doctor makes it a point to keep Baby relaxed or comfortable, you can always consider bringing Baby to a different doctor next time. Once you find someone that Baby likes, you can stick with them for a long time.

The bottom line

No matter what you do, you probably won’t have Baby begging you to bring them to the doctor’s waiting room in your free time. A little anxiety about visits to the doctor is normal, but you can help Baby develop some peace of mind about these visits, which will encourage them to take care of their health for the rest of their life.

  • Lisa Esposito. “What to Do If Your Child Is Afraid of the Doctor.” USNews. US News and World Report, Jul 2014. Web.
  • Lawrence Kutner. “If your child is afraid of the doctor.” PsychCentral. Psych Central, Mar 2017. Web.
  • “Preparing your child for visits to the doctor.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, 2017. Web.
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