Tips for reducing terror at the doctor’s office

Amazon: Sony Portable DVD Player For some kids, even the most routine doctor's visit is terrifying — and traumatic for you. Here's how Alexandra helped calm the fear:

My 16 month-old is in terror, like trembling-puppy-in-a-lightning-storm terror, at doctor appointments.  Especially when she's really sick.  When our doctor approaches, she screams hysterically.

At our most recent appointment, we did two things differently that kept the trauma to a minimum.

First, whatever the doctor did to my daughter, she did to me first.  (Me in gentle voice: "See, sweetie?  The nice lady is looking inside mama's ear.  Thank you, doctor!  Now, your turn.  We are going to look at baby's ears.  Here we go…").

Second, we brought the portable DVD player that recently saved our butts on a six-hour road trip.  We held it so she could watch her favourite DVD while being examined up on the table (hysteria headquarters).

She still cried, but she never lost it completely and she stopped trembling. Not sure who enjoyed more relief, me or her.

Ooh, I feel your pain. I was that kid…when I was little, I screamed uncontrollably at the doctor's office. What I can recall about that anxiety is that it could not be reasoned away; it could simply be blunted by distraction or the promise of an ice cream after the fact. As a parent, I try to walk that line between comforting my kids when they're afraid and paying as little dramatic attention as possible.

How do you calm your fearful kids at the doctor's office?

Related: Stave off exam room anxiety by doodling on the paper-covered exam table


  1. carmie says

    I’m sorry, but I’m not taking a rectal thermometer for my kid. Luckily, we’ve only had one of those visits.

  2. Asha Dornfest says

    Where’s the parental self-sacrifice, Carmie? C’mon!

    Seriously, how DOES one help kids deal with the fear of admittedly painful or uncomfortable procedures? The fear is totally legitimate.

  3. Michelle says

    My son was about 18mo when he began to be terrified of the doctor’s office. After one visit when he screamed in clear terror nearly the entire time the doctor was there, she recommended that we get a child’s toy doctor set and play with it at home. That did the trick for him, and he has been calm at the doctor’s office ever since.

  4. Kate says

    My son was about 17 months when he started having extreme anxiety about the doctor’s office. We’re talking screaming, clinging, shaking, horrified screams from a normally extremely adventurous and carefree child.

    We did three things to mitigate his fear, and now he loves to go to see “Dr. Abe”

    1. We practiced and played Dr. at home, normalizing the instruments and procedures
    2. We bought and watched “Elmo Visits the Doctor” where they depict visiting the pediatrician as fun and non-threatening. It worked wonders
    3. We did what you did – when there, we had the doctor do whatever he was going to do to him, to me first.

    I also am a big fan of engaging my child. Even though I wasn’t sure what he would understand, I made sure to explain everything to him before and as it happened:

    “Okay Jeebs, Dr. Abe is going to look in your ears with the flashlight. It’s not going to hurt.”

    “Okay honey, we have to do some shots now. It might be ouch for a second, but then it will be ok and you’ll have some bandaids.”

    Now, when I tell him we’re going to see to the Doctor’s office, he gets excited and says “see the fishies,” or “like Elmo did it!” etc.

    I am so glad we were proactive. His anxiety was starting to give me anxiety. There’s nothing worse than a sick, scared kid.

  5. Dana says

    Our family doctor recommended we get vaccinations at the public health clinic instead of the doctor’s office to reduce the association of doctor and shots. Plus, she hates giving shots and the public health nurses do it better and faster, especially for babies who have to have so many at a time.

  6. chris says

    Sometimes a change in doctor can do wonders. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a personality conflict. Not saying the doctor isn’t good, because they almost certainly are. The terror resolved very well when we switched to a different doctor in the same practice. She was young and peppy and fun, as opposed to the warm grandmotherly first one. She gets them cracking up from the instant through the door and there hasn’t even been a whine from overly sensitive daughter. She gets me laughing too, asks if they’ve seen Big Bird – is he in here (nose)? Hmmm.. is he in here (ears)? huh… maybe he’s here (mouth) and so on. They are far too busy laughing to have any anxiety. Doctor leaves, we get mostly dressed, then 5 minutes later the nurse comes in for the shots. Very fast too, then we leave immediately. The flu shots were the big shocker this last time. My 1 1/2 year old didn’t cry, just screamed at her “NO MA’AM! That’s OUCH” then got over it. My 3 year old didn’t cry and then thanked her for the beautiful band-aid.

  7. Jacquie says

    My son never was afraid of the doctors until recently He is 5years old, and he goes into fits of spitting and trying to bite the nurses or doctors, any suggestions on how to calm that behavior?

  8. Alex N says

    At that age, I would nurse my daughter if she massively freaked out. Anywhere. I totally understand there are lots of reasons other people don’t nurse toddlers, but it certainly comes in handy in a pinch. My daughter is almost 4 and still nurses to sleep and in cases of extreme meltdown. I generally won’t nurse in public anymore, but I feel that someone who performs medical exams can be expected to be cool with it.

  9. Keith @ Barbie Cooking says

    Very inspiring blog and useful tips. Better not to tell
    to our kids about what the doctor really do.

  10. Christine says

    The best trick we have is having the doctor check for birdies in the kids ears. The doctor leans in and uses the otoscope to “Check for birdies”. If you can get the dr on board, then they whistle while they look through the scope and ask if the kid can hear the birdies. I haven’t seen a kid this didn’t work on! Children always want to have the other ear examined to see if there are birds in there too!

    However, last time we went to the dr she found “lions” in my son’s ears. For two nights he was frightened by the lion rawring in his ear, or that’s what he said when he kept calling us to his bed. So stick with birdies.

  11. Caro says

    I would like to say “dito” to chris’s earlier comment about switching doctors. We ended up seeing a number of different doctors during my daughter’s first (very sick) winter. We found that the NP at the practice got my kids to laugh every single time. She even had my daughter asking her to look in her ear *again* after other doctors had to have me and a PA hold her down before they could look.

  12. Angele says

    I use the “catch more flies with honey” approach.

    At the 15 month visit recently, if I’d held my son down while the doctor (and then the med student after that!) looked in his ears, it would have resulted in writhing and screaming. Instead, I nibbled on his other ear until he was laughing, and then the doctor had no problem. Same with various other body parts — tickles, funny noises, etc.

    We have much better luck doing the exam with the babies in our laps than on the exam table. The moment either baby touches the table (even just to be measured), they freak out.

    Since I have twins, I also make a point of bringing my husband when both babies are going to get shots. I once went alone and had to try to comfort two hysterical babies post-shots — never again. The nurse tried to help me, but when they’re that upset they won’t be comforted by a stranger.

  13. Kelsey Nicolay says

    I have never really been afraid of doctors, but I hated having blood drawn as a child. I had to do it a lot due to a medical condition. I did fine with the exam, but when it came time for them to draw blood, I cried. After that, I made sure they drew it from my non dominant arm and I sat on my mom’s lap. I never had a problem after that but I did complain at first but got over it.

  14. Kelsey Nicolay says

    I find that the nurse practitioners tend to be more personable. At my pediatricians, I never cared for my doctor, but they had a nurse practitioner who we always tried to see for our physicals. Even now, I still prefer to see nurse practitioners because they tend to relate better to nervous patients.