Many children have negative feelings, based on past experience and fearful imaginings, about seeing a doctor. If your child is afraid of doctors, you might be tempted to keep an appointment from him; you may even consider starting out for the office without letting him know where you both are going.
Although this may seem like a good way to keep your child from getting upset, deceiving him is a mistake. You deprive him of time to prepare for the visit, and you may increase his fear. He might believe that you didn’t tell him about the appointment because there was something to be afraid of. It’s always better to let your child know in advance about an office visit.
If your child is under two years old, you may have a difficult time preparing him for the appointment. A child this young, who won’t fully understand the reasons for his visit, may enter the doctor’s office calmly and then cry or feel anxious when he goes into the examining room. Many parts of a standard checkup are uncomfortable: the child gags as his throat is checked, he feels momentary pain during blood tests and inoculations, he’s measured and tested with cold instruments. No matter how well-mannered the physician is, the examination can be an unpleasant and therefore fearful experience.
During an examination, you can offer comfort and reassurance to your child: “I’m right here beside you,” “I know you don’t like to have your ears checked,” or “The doctor’s almost done.” But such words may not relieve your child’s anxiety, especially when, as sometimes happens, you’re physically restraining him so the doctor can continue the examination. Sometimes a child in this situation will feel comforted if his toy or blanket is nearby.
You’ll be more successful preparing your child if he’s between three and five years old. He’ll be better able to understand what happens during an exam and to verbalize some of his anxieties. Talk ahead of time about the appointment. Tell him briefly about the procedures, the instruments the doctor will use, the toys in the waiting room, and the setup of the examining rooms, but try to present this information in a way that won’t frighten him: “Do you remember the table in the examining room? I can read you a story while you sit up there and wait for the doctor.” “There are cups in the room so you can get a drink of water.” If an injection is scheduled, say, “Your shot might hurt, but only for a minute.”
When your child expresses his fears, accept them; don’t pressure him to “be brave” or “be good.” When he knows that he can say “ouch” or cry, he may feel less upset about getting an injection or having his ears and throat checked.
He may tell you he doesn’t want to take his clothes off in the doctor’s office. This is a common worry for children four to five years old. Let him know he may have to undress, but talk to your doctor about the situation. Many pediatricians will accommodate a modest child.
Your child may relieve some of his own anxiety about appointments by playing doctor. When he takes the role of doctor, he’s in control as he re-experiences some of the uncomfortable and frightening things that have happened to him. Children usually play doctor by using a toy stethoscope, giving pretend injections, and using bandages.
When your child plays doctor with a friend, they may undress and examine each other. This is a common, innocent occurrence. Set limits about keeping clothes on, but don’t make your child feel ashamed for playing this way.
No matter how well you prepare your child for a doctor’s appointment, he may remain anxious and afraid. Some children are just more worried than others about appointments and doctors. As long as he’s fearful, the best you can do is accept his feelings, give him honest information about what to expect, and offer him reassurance: “The doctor is going to help you feel better.”