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Little Kids, Big Questions
is a series of 12 podcasts that translates the research of early childhood development into parenting practices that mothers, fathers and other caregivers can tailor to the needs of their own child and family. Click here to listen to or download the podcasts. This podcast series is generously funded by MetLife Foundation.

My 26-month-old is terrified of the doctor.

Q: My 26-month-old is terrified of the doctor.  Our pediatrician could not be nicer, but my daughter screams and cries when the doctor tries to examine her.  Everything seems to scare her, even the things that don't hurt—like the stethoscope.  Any suggestions for making doctor's appointments go more smoothly?

A: This is quite common as two important developments are taking place at this age. First, your daughter’s thinking skills are allowing her to not only remember the doctor’s office but also to anticipate what might happen there—like getting a shot or finger prick. She is also becoming more aware of her own body and focused on the fact that her body belongs to her. Naturally, she wants to be the boss of her body. 

Unfortunately, trying to talk to your toddler rationally about why she shouldn’t be afraid often doesn’t work. This is because 2-year-olds do not yet grasp logic.  Instead, build on your child’s growing language and pretend play skills to help her work through her fear:

  • Validate and label her feelings. I know, the stethoscope looks scary. But it is  only for listening and won’t hurt (but it might be cold!)
  • Be honest with her about what will happen. Don’t tell her the shot won’t hurt if it will. But let her know it won’t last long.
  • Read stories about going to the doctor. Ask your librarian for recommendations appropriate to your child’s age.
  • Pretend to go to the doctor with one of your child’s favorite dolls or stuffed animals.  You can be the doctor first and then your child might want to give it a try.  Follow her lead to see where she wants this playacting to go.  For example, if she tells or shows you that her “baby” is scared, you as the doctor can say, I will be very gentle. I will take good care of you, I promise.

Find a good time, just a few hours before your daughter’s appointment, to let her know about her upcoming visit. Make a plan for what the two of you can do if she is feeling scared—for example, bring a favorite stuffed animal to the appointment, or tote along a favorite book to read. 

When you actually go to see the doctor, let him or her know about your child’s fear so they can be extra sensitive. Ask the doctor to tell your child what he is going to do before he does it to help her prepare and feel more in control. Let her sit on your lap.  Most of the exam can be done this way.
 
Afterward, no matter how she responds to the exam, let her know how proud you are of her for getting through it. While she may never love going to the doctor (who does?), being sensitive and supportive throughout the process teaches your daughter how to cope with a fear—a skill for life.


 
This question first appeared in the "Your Baby's Behavior" column American Baby magazine.

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