Toddlers' fear of doctors

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 18, 2010 06:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Barbara,

My daughter is 3 1/2 and deathly afraid of any doctor and dentist. We actually have to hold her down at every appointment to accomplish what needs to be done. I have tried to talk to her prior to the appointment to let her know what they are going to do and what to expect. We give her plenty of time at each appointment to cooperate but we can only talk her into it for so long...they do have other patients to deal with. My husband has to go to every appointment because I cannot hold her for exams. I hate to do that to her and scare her even more, but at this point, she does not reason well and will not get checkups if we don't. What else can we do to make her understand they won't hurt her and she will be ok?

She has never had a traumatic incident, never was hospitalized or had any real reason to be afraid. I have been with her for every doctor appointment in her life so far and never let her go by herself. I don't know what started this fear but she has been like this since she was a baby. At her 9 month appointment she screamed because the doctor put the stethescope on her and then it was downhill at every appointment for every exam they did. Please help!!

From: Abby, Pittsburgh

Hi Abby,

Considering that fear of the doctor is one of the top 10 fears of childhood, I'm not surprised that parents raise it in this space every so often. (Click here for a previous discussion.)

I chatted about a young child's fears over the phone and via email with Dr. Ellen Hanson, director of developmental research at Children's Hospital in Boston. Here's an edited & condensed Q&A:

BFM: It breaks your heart to have to hold down your child like this.

EH: Absolutely. Unfortunately, this is not like some other things in life where you have a choice. You have to take your child to the doctor.

BFM: I remember once holding my son while he had blood drawn. I think it was harder for me than for him.

EH: I've had to do it as a parent, too; most of us have to at some point. My son - he was about 3 - had never had a problem at the doctor and then one day we went in and he all of a sudden flipped out.

BFM. ''Be brave, honey.'' Is that a good thing to say?

EH. Too esoteric. So is trying to reason with a child this age. Young kids do better with concrete information: ''It's going to be over fast.''

BFM. And if you have to hold your child?

EH. Do it. Just get it over with. Stay calm. Be honest. "It will hurt, but shots are really quick.'' Lots of hugs and kisses afterward. The good news is there does not seem to be any long-term trauma from this.

BFM. That is reassuring. What else?

EH. Don't tell her days in advance. Mention it briefly that morning. Don't go into a lot of detail. Answer questions truthfully and briefly.

BFM. ''Will I get a shot?''

EH. ''Yes. It will be over quickly. I'll hold you. I'll help you.'' Change the subject as quickly as you can. One way to do that without ignoring the issue is to talk about all the things she can bring. Bring a whole bagful of stuff! For instance:

Snacks, favorite toys, loveys. Your child can help you ''pack.'' The best snacks are often ones that need to be sucked. When you are sucking, it is impossible to cry hysterically. I am not in favor of a lot of sugar for kids, or in sugar as a regular reward, but these situations are infrequent.

BFM. Other ideas?

EH. When you are in the examining room, if the hysterics have not yet begun but your child is getting anxious, have the doctor do the exam on you, or on the child?s doll/stuffed animal. Make it into a game. Let the child be the doctor.

BFM. Playing doctor at home. It's why toy doctor sets were invented, to help master the fears.

EH. Read books. Watch videos. Make your own book about a doctor visit. That's a great tool for mastery at many ages.

Never make fun of, ridicule, threaten or punish a child. Threatening to leave or to take things away can often escalate hysterics and just plain make the child feel bad.

BFM. Do you ever recommend sedation?

EH. Only for a procedure.

BFM. So children outgrow this?

EH. For the typical child, it's a passing thing. It will not develop into a phobia. If doctor issues continue [for years], if they are extreme [compared to other children their age; a doctor will let you know that]; if your child has developmental disabilities; or if the fear becomes generalized [developing into other fears], talk to your pediatrician or to a psychologist.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

7 comments so far...
  1. Poor kid. Good advice here, nothing more to add other than to say I relate to the child. As an adult, I am gradually overcoming a wild fear of dentistry that has continued into my older years. I had my first cavity filled at 23 and needed the same restraint as this little one. I feel for you, kid!

    Posted by Sarah B May 18, 10 09:59 AM
  1. I don't have any additional advice, but wanted to let the writer know she's not alone! I dread taking my 3 1/2 year old to the doctor. Reading this letter was like reliving every doctor's visit. Thankfully he is generally healthy and we usually only visit once a year. But yeah, I have to get on the scale with him to take his weight. The screams start as soon as the doctor walks in and don't stop until they walk out. He hasn't had to get any shots recently, but my husband will definitely be the one to take the visit next time he does need them. Words of comfort don't work as I don't think he can hear them. Plus he has a speech delay, so not sure he understands either. Letting me have a turn makes the cries louder! I just hope that it's something he will grow out of once his speech/communication catches up!

    Posted by weymom May 18, 10 01:08 PM
  1. My daughter had a rough time at the doctor from when she was pretty young (9 months or so) until recently (she's almost 3). She would freak out about just getting on the scale to be weighed. I bought her "doctor toys" for Christmas and playing with those really seemed to help. Maybe it was a coincidence but she's had great visits ever since. She loves giving us "shots" and "fixing cuts". It's worth a try.

    Posted by DT May 18, 10 06:05 PM
  1. My son hated going to the doctor from the time he had a double-ear infection as an infant--it hurt for him to lie down, and they checked his ears away from us (on the table). He was afraid until we started taking him to a local kid's chiropractor! (Adjustments there are super-gentle, and he found being there relaxing.) Anyway, since then, he's been way less stressed at the doctor's office, and has even made it through blood draws. Though, if he doesn't want a blood draw, he's still been known to scream (he does admit that it doesn't hurt). Anyway, that's what worked for us. If appropriate, I'm happy to give the kid's chiropractor's name!

    Posted by Beth May 18, 10 07:05 PM
  1. That stethoscope at the 9 month appt was probably freezing cold. Some doctors figure out how to warm their tools up so that there is no chill on contact. Some doctors don't.

    Some kids are afraid of doctors that do exams standing up. Some kids hate the high open table or the bright lights. Some kids hate having strangers take their clothes off (which is a good thing).

    If the parent is in another room there is nothing that the kid can relate to. Their sense of time is not developed enough to reassure them that "this will be quick" if they have already sat and waited in the office for more than 20 minutes. And don't you the parent want to hear the doctor's comments as the exam progresses?

    I can't think of ANY reason that a child has to be examined away from a normal parent. You can even put parents into scrubs in a hospital if you have to--the parent being there makes such a difference to the mood.

    Part of all exams can be done with the child sitting in the parent's lap, as can all shots and blood draws. Nurse practitioners are sometimes better at this approach that keeps the kids calm. They are qualified to give the routine shots and do most healthy baby care.

    Posted by Irene May 19, 10 10:52 AM
  1. We got a Doctors play set (Parents Brand) for my daughters first birthday. We encouraged her to give us, her teddy bears, and our cat shots, take our BP, give a medicine, etc. with the playset and after 6 months she WANTED to go to the doctor. She didn't even cry the last time she got a shot! Worked for us...for 12 bucks at Target it might be worth a try!

    Posted by Roy May 20, 10 10:51 AM
  1. This website could help: www.wellbear.net
    It features a free picture book you can read online, "Well Bear, Brave Bear: My Visit to the Doctor" in which a teddy bear goes through the whole experience of a typical checkup, including immunizations. The bear tells the story in a way that's empowering for the child. Text is in English and Spanish.

    Posted by David Woolley August 26, 13 02:56 PM
 
7 comments so far...
  1. Poor kid. Good advice here, nothing more to add other than to say I relate to the child. As an adult, I am gradually overcoming a wild fear of dentistry that has continued into my older years. I had my first cavity filled at 23 and needed the same restraint as this little one. I feel for you, kid!

    Posted by Sarah B May 18, 10 09:59 AM
  1. I don't have any additional advice, but wanted to let the writer know she's not alone! I dread taking my 3 1/2 year old to the doctor. Reading this letter was like reliving every doctor's visit. Thankfully he is generally healthy and we usually only visit once a year. But yeah, I have to get on the scale with him to take his weight. The screams start as soon as the doctor walks in and don't stop until they walk out. He hasn't had to get any shots recently, but my husband will definitely be the one to take the visit next time he does need them. Words of comfort don't work as I don't think he can hear them. Plus he has a speech delay, so not sure he understands either. Letting me have a turn makes the cries louder! I just hope that it's something he will grow out of once his speech/communication catches up!

    Posted by weymom May 18, 10 01:08 PM
  1. My daughter had a rough time at the doctor from when she was pretty young (9 months or so) until recently (she's almost 3). She would freak out about just getting on the scale to be weighed. I bought her "doctor toys" for Christmas and playing with those really seemed to help. Maybe it was a coincidence but she's had great visits ever since. She loves giving us "shots" and "fixing cuts". It's worth a try.

    Posted by DT May 18, 10 06:05 PM
  1. My son hated going to the doctor from the time he had a double-ear infection as an infant--it hurt for him to lie down, and they checked his ears away from us (on the table). He was afraid until we started taking him to a local kid's chiropractor! (Adjustments there are super-gentle, and he found being there relaxing.) Anyway, since then, he's been way less stressed at the doctor's office, and has even made it through blood draws. Though, if he doesn't want a blood draw, he's still been known to scream (he does admit that it doesn't hurt). Anyway, that's what worked for us. If appropriate, I'm happy to give the kid's chiropractor's name!

    Posted by Beth May 18, 10 07:05 PM
  1. That stethoscope at the 9 month appt was probably freezing cold. Some doctors figure out how to warm their tools up so that there is no chill on contact. Some doctors don't.

    Some kids are afraid of doctors that do exams standing up. Some kids hate the high open table or the bright lights. Some kids hate having strangers take their clothes off (which is a good thing).

    If the parent is in another room there is nothing that the kid can relate to. Their sense of time is not developed enough to reassure them that "this will be quick" if they have already sat and waited in the office for more than 20 minutes. And don't you the parent want to hear the doctor's comments as the exam progresses?

    I can't think of ANY reason that a child has to be examined away from a normal parent. You can even put parents into scrubs in a hospital if you have to--the parent being there makes such a difference to the mood.

    Part of all exams can be done with the child sitting in the parent's lap, as can all shots and blood draws. Nurse practitioners are sometimes better at this approach that keeps the kids calm. They are qualified to give the routine shots and do most healthy baby care.

    Posted by Irene May 19, 10 10:52 AM
  1. We got a Doctors play set (Parents Brand) for my daughters first birthday. We encouraged her to give us, her teddy bears, and our cat shots, take our BP, give a medicine, etc. with the playset and after 6 months she WANTED to go to the doctor. She didn't even cry the last time she got a shot! Worked for us...for 12 bucks at Target it might be worth a try!

    Posted by Roy May 20, 10 10:51 AM
  1. This website could help: www.wellbear.net
    It features a free picture book you can read online, "Well Bear, Brave Bear: My Visit to the Doctor" in which a teddy bear goes through the whole experience of a typical checkup, including immunizations. The bear tells the story in a way that's empowering for the child. Text is in English and Spanish.

    Posted by David Woolley August 26, 13 02:56 PM
add your comment
Required
Required (will not be published)

This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it.

About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

Submit a question for Barbara's Mailbag


Ask Barbara a question

Barbara answers questions on a wide range of topics, including autism, breastfeeding, bullying, discipline, divorce, kindergarten, potty training, sleep, tantrums, and much, much more.

Send your questions to her at:
meltzbarbara (at) gmail.com.
Please include your name and hometown.

Child in Mind

Moms
All parenting discussions
Discussions

High needs/fussy baby

memes98 writes "My 10.5 month old DS has been fussy ever since he was born, but I am getting very frustrated because I thought he would be much better by now...has anyone else been through this?"

More community voices

Child in Mind

Corner Kicks

Dirty Old Boston

Mortal Matters

On Deck

TEDx Beacon Street

RSS feed


click here to subscribe to
Child Caring

archives