Decreasing Child Anxiety at the Doctor


I just took my little one to her 18 months well check-up (a month late because well, I am THAT mom with baby number two...sorry Quinny), and let me tell you, it was a DISASTER! Her cognitive development is where it should be because she is remembering exactly what this doctor and shot thing is all about, so I guess we have that going for us, but, as soon as the doctor asked me to place my daughter on the table, she freaked! My tiny human totally Hulk’d-out on me. Can we say conditioned punisher?

So… What's a mama to do when your little one has a rough go at doctor's offices?

As a Behavior Analyst and a professional in the field of psychology, this mama is going straight for a desensitization program for doctor visits because I cannot handle another doctor visit like the one we just experienced. I was actually sweating after holding her down for the medical exam and shots. How can a tiny human be so strong? Not to mention that my daughter was traumatized after that entire experience. So, what do I mean when I say a desensitization? Desensitization is when you are gradually exposing a person to the thing that they are fearful of. So, in this situation, I will gradually expose my 19-month-old to items that are found in a doctor’s office and we will “practice” the steps that are involved in a medical check-up! Below are the activities that I have been implementing with my little one to help reduce some of the anxiety when it comes to the good ol’ doctor visits.

  • Explore Doctor Tools - I just bought my daughter a Doctor Play Set and we have been exploring the tools. If you simulate what a doctor visit will be, it will not seem as ‘novel’ when they are at an actual doctor visit. The child will also become more familiar with the tools used in the medical office.
    • While playing with the tools, discuss each tool and talk about its purpose and what the doctor is looking for (i.e. looking in ears, listening to the heart, etc). This provides context and better understanding as to why they have checkups!
    • During my little one’s doctor appointment, I observed one of my daughter’s challenges was that she did not want to open her mouth when the doctor wanted to see her tonsils. If we work on this at home, it will not seem so daunting when she is asked to do this by the doctor in the clinic.
  • Watch Video of Doctor Visit - Another great way to prepare your little cutie for the doctor is to let them watch a video of an office visit; this is called video modeling. This YouTube video goes through an entire two-year-old well checkup. From walking in, checking vitals all the way to giving a shot! It is a great way to prepare a little one for an impending doctor visit.
  • Play Doctor - Role playing is great way to reduce anxiety when approaching doctors visit. After watching a video of an office visit, you could go through all the steps of a doctor appointment. You can take turns on who is playing the doctor and who is playing the patient; maybe throw in a stuffed animal or baby doll and let the teddy bear be the patient as well. This lets the child further explore the doctor tools and continue to normalize doctor visits.
  • Read Stories - I LOVE reading stories to help prepare little ones for a transition or an event that they may be fearful of. This helps provide context for something that they may have trouble conceptualizing. There are many great book titles that cover the topic of doctor visits. Here are some of my favorites.

Going to the Doctor by Anne Civardi

The Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor by Jan Berenstain

My daughter’s next appointment is at her two-year checkup which is coincidentally on her actual birthday (hmm… I wonder if I will eventually reschedule that appointment and end up a month late on that one...probably).

I will be ramping up these desensitization initiatives closer to her birthday, but will be working on them intermittently as well. I will be sure to post an update to let you know how all of our preventative preparations went. My prediction is that our next appointment will go a little better. But, let’s be honest… It can’t get much worse! Good luck, Mama! (and little munchkin(s))!