In my years spent as a pediatric nurse, I’ve seen the gamut of how parents respond at their child’s doctor’s appointment. Some parents are nervous, some parents take every appointment in stride, some parents come with a notebook full of questions, some never look up from their phone. But regardless of how you may respond as a parent, I want to share some strategies for preparing your child for visiting the doctor for either a planned well check or an unplanned sick visit.
Going to a doctor’s appointment tends to make anyone nervous. As a parent, talking with your child ahead of time can help to ease some of their anxiety. For their annual well child appointment, explain that the nurse will be asking them to step on a scale to see how much they weigh or measuring them to see how tall they have grown. Talk to them about why the nurse may ask them to undress. This allows the doctor to be able to examine all of their important parts. This is a perfect time to reiterate who is allowed to see them undressed- parents and a trusted medical professional. Unless you are sure there are no scheduled vaccines, do not promise your child there will be no shots. If you are unsure, simply tell your child that they can ask the doctor or nurse when they arrive at their appointment. On a much more personal note, I beg moms to stop saying “here comes the mean nurse to give you a shot” when you are at your appointment. This does nothing but diminish the relationship nurses try to develop with your child.
What to bring and what to leave at home!
When preparing for your child’s doctor’s appointment what you bring can be very important. In addition to your insurance card and mask (Covid precautions are here to stay!), be sure to bring your child’s favorite comfort item. A lovey, blanket, stuffed animal, or pacifier can help to soothe the nerves of your little one. But as a courtesy to other families who may have a child with food allergies, please leave a snack in the car for after your appointment! If you are bringing your child to the pediatrician for a sick visit, it is helpful to share a timeline for the onset of symptoms. A fever that began five days ago is very different from a fever that began five hours ago.
Use encouraging language
Almost every day when working in a primary care office, I hear parents using language encouraging poor behavior in children at their appointment. “Oh, be ready, Little Sally will NEVER stand on that scale for you” or “I hope you have extra hands, Johnny is ready to fight today”. Here is an insider secret in the pediatric nursing world, we expect kids to be scared! We expect them to be unsure of what will happen in a doctor’s office, emergency room, or hospital bed. We know they remember the last time they got a shot and it hurt! But we need you to be an ally with us and use language that encourages your child. As one of my coworkers and favorite pediatricians always reminds parents, you need to lend your children your confidence!
Instead of saying “Sally will NEVER stand on that scale for you”, try using language that recognizes Sally’s fear but doesn’t give passive permission for not doing what is asked. “Sally, standing on the scale here is important. I’ll stand right next to you, and maybe the nurse can give you a sticker when you are done”. As pediatric nurses, we expect kids to be scared and uncooperative when the dreaded “shot” time comes. But many parents begin the discussion about how horrible their child is going to act long before the nurse is ready to give immunizations. Rather than recounting the last horrible experience or warning the nurse that they may need reinforcements (we always know this is a possibility!), ask your medical staff how you can help them make the immunizations as least traumatic as possible. Many of us have years of experience and a few tricks up our sleeve. Remember that your child hears you and uses the language you use and it helps them decide how to act in this stressful situation. Your language matters!
As a parent, you have the greatest impact on how your child will react during their doctor’s appointment. So in the words of the great Dr. Mazurek, lend them your confidence!