How to Ease Your Child’s Fears About Doctor Visits

Tips to prepare kids for an anxiety-free doctor visit

A female provider performing a routine medical exam on a child.

Tips to prepare kids for an anxiety-free doctor visit

As a parent, it’s hard to see your child upset or worried, especially when they have to visit the doctor.

Many children feel scared and anxious about visiting the doctor. This could be due to a previous negative experience, a fear of needles, or simply not knowing what to expect.

You can help your child feel less scared and make doctor visits better by taking certain steps. Remember to stay involved every step of the way.

“As difficult as it may seem, do your best to avoid appearing anxious yourself during the appointment,” says Dania Lindenberg, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Hillcrest. “Your child will pick up on your mood, so smile, relax your shoulders, breathe slowly and speak in a warm, reassuring tone.”

Understanding your child's fear

The first step in helping your child overcome their fear of the doctor is to understand where their fear is coming from.

For young kids, the fear of the unknown can be a major factor. The doctor’s office can be full of unfamiliar sights, sounds and sensations. “Feeling out of control is scary, especially for a toddler whose verbal ability is still limited,” Dr. Lindenberg says.

For older children, a previous negative experience at the doctor’s office, such as a painful shot or a scary procedure, can lead to a fear of the doctor.

While it’s normal for some children to be afraid of needles, don’t let this prevent you from sticking to the recommended childhood vaccine schedule for your child. There are many ways to help your child overcome his or her fear of shots.

“If your child is old enough to understand, ask them why they are afraid. This will help you address their specific concerns and fears,” Dr. Lindenberg says.

It’s also important to validate your child’s feelings and let them know that it’s okay to be scared. “Reassure them that you will be there to support them and that the doctor is there to help them stay healthy,” Dr. Lindenberg says.

Preparing for the visit

Talk to your child about the visit

Before the visit, take some time to talk to your child about what to expect. Explain to them why it’s important to go to the doctor and what will happen during the visit. Use simple and age-appropriate language to help them understand.

It’s important to be honest with your child. Don’t promise them that it won’t hurt or that they won’t get a shot if you know that they will. This can break their trust and make them more fearful in the future.

“Never lie to a child and never make promises that may be broken during a visit,” says Dr. Lindenberg. For example, you shouldn’t promise that a visit to the doctor won’t hurt, because there may be immunizations or blood draws. What you can say is, “I don’t know if you will get a shot this time. If you do, it will be over very quickly and will probably feel like a pinch.” 

You can read books or watch videos with your child about going to the doctor to make them more comfortable. This can help reduce their fears and make the visit less scary.

Help your child build patient-doctor trust

It’s important for your child to get to know their doctor over time. Try to choose one doctor for them to see regularly. This will make doctor visits less scary.

Start building a relationship with a primary doctor early on. This way, your child will feel more comfortable and familiar with their health care provider.

If possible, take your child to the doctor's office before their actual visit. This will give them a chance to see the waiting room, exam rooms, and meet the staff. It can also help them become more comfortable with the environment and reduce their anxiety on the day of the visit.

Role play at home

Another helpful way to prepare your child for a doctor visit is to role play with them. You can take turns being the doctor and the patient, and practice what will happen during the visit. This can help your child become more familiar with the process and feel more in control.

Use play instruments to listen to your child’s heart, look in her ears, and check her eyes and teeth. Then, let her give you or her favorite doll an exam. The more your child is exposed to routine medical exam procedures, the less frightening they will be.

During the visit

Set your child’s mind at ease

When it’s time for the actual visit, it's important to remain positive and calm.

Reassure your child that you and the doctor are a team, and you are both on the same side. Remind them that you will be with them whole time and emphasize that the doctor is there to help them stay or get well.

If your child’s pediatrician still dresses formally, consider asking the doctor to remove the white coat during your child’s visit. The lack of a uniform may help to remove a fear trigger from the situation.

Bring a comfort Item

If your child has a favorite toy or blanket, bring it with you to the visit. This can provide them with a sense of comfort and security during a potentially stressful experience.

Avoid using fear tactics to get your child to behave at the doctor’s office. This can make them more anxious and may cause them to develop a long-term fear of the doctor. Instead, focus on positive reinforcement and praise for good behavior.

Distract your child

During the visit, try to distract your child from any procedures or exams that may cause them anxiety. You can bring a book or toy to keep them occupied or sing a song or play a game to help them relax.

If your child is particularly afraid of needles, ask the doctor or nurse if they can provide a distraction during the shot. This can be something as simple as blowing bubbles or counting to 10. This can help your child focus on something else and make the experience less scary.

Some pediatricians may keep pain reducing devices designed for children. Two of the best known are Buzzy and ShotBlocker. Ask if they carry them and how they work.

Buzzy uses cold and vibration to stop pain signals. ShotBlocker uses pressure near the injection site. Both methods prevent pain signals from reaching the brain.

After the visit

Praise your child

After the visit, be sure to praise your child for their bravery and good behavior. Let them know that you are proud of them for facing their fears and that they did a great job at the doctor’s office.

Reward your child

Consider rewarding your child for their bravery and good behavior at the doctor’s office. This can be something as simple as a sticker or a small toy. This will help reinforce positive behavior and make future visits less daunting.

Despite your best efforts, it may turn out you have a child who cries every time she even gets near the doctor’s office. Don’t worry — this will likely get better as she grows older. Be patient, be firm, be supportive, be understanding, and try to remain calm.

Right doctor makes difference

When finding a pediatrician for your child, look for someone patient, understanding and experienced with kids. A doctor who is good with kids can help make the visit less intimidating and more enjoyable for your child.

Tell your doctor about your child’s interests, like Legos or favorite movies, to help them connect with your child. Finding common ground can make your child feel more comfortable and build trust with the doctor.

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