Prepping for Success
A pretend medical kit is a toy-box must. Feeling the squeeze of a mini-blood-pressure cuff, say, can make the real thing not such a shock.
Read all about it
There's a wealth of picture books about what an exam is like. Some faves: My Friend the Doctor, by Joanna Cole; Doctor Maisy, by Lucy Cousins; and Tomie dePaola's The Barker Twins: Triple Checkup.
Don't make the doc a bad cop
"I can't tell you how often I hear 'You'd better be good or I'll tell the doctor' or 'I'll make the doctor give you a shot,'" says Adiaha Franklin, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and a mom of three. The goal is for your child to see the pediatrician as the caregiver she is, not as The Enemy.
Set up appointments for happy hours
Post-breakfast and post-nap are great for little ones; for older kids, getting to slip out of school early can be a treat.
Time the news right
Wait until the day of to mention an appointment so there's less time for anxiety to build; you can hold off on telling a toddler or preschooler until an hour or two beforehand.
Give the details simply
Explain exactly what the visit is for, even if it's a well-child checkup: "I tell my four-year-old that we sometimes go just to make sure everything is okay," says Stephanie Foster of Sunnyvale, CA. If you're ambitious, call ahead and ask for a rundown of what the checkup will cover.
Soothing Nervous Nellies
Plaster on a smile
Your kid can read you like a book: If you're anxious or upset, she will be, too. Babies are especially attuned to nonverbal cues, so try to fight it if you feel your brow start to furrow or your voice start to shake.
"Some parents assume they should leave during a procedure like drawing blood," says Lori Heim, M.D., president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "But you're much more reassuring to your child than the doctor or nurse is." If you're afraid you might lose it, bring along another grown-up your child trusts as backup.
Pack a favorite pal
Bring a blanket, bear, or Binky. "My son always takes his stuffed Barney to the ear specialist," says Melissa Fickel, a mom of four in Logan, OH. "He barely plays with the thing at home, but for some reason it's his comfort toy at the doctor's."
Play teddy see, teddy do
A huggable animal or doll can also come in handy as an example: The doc can look into its ears or listen to its heart to show how quick and easy these procedures are. Likewise, you or a braver sib can be the guinea pig who says "aah" first. Shelley Wells of Sutherlin, OR, has 7-year-old twins. "The compliant one always goes first at their exams, which calms his brother," she says.
Have a surprise up your sleeve
Save a special toy or game exclusively for the doctor visit. This is especially effective for older kids who are past the lovey stage.
Cede some control
Invite a school-age child to think about or write down any questions he might have for the doctor. He'll feel like he's got some say in the exam, rather than like someone things will be "done" to.
Rx for Resisters
Got a tot who simply refuses to get weighed? One option is to hop on with her yourself, then again without her, and subtract the difference. Or try this tip from Montclair, NJ, mom Maura Rhodes: "I tell my kids to step up on the 'stage,' since the scale kind of looks like one."
If you want your kid to open up wide for the doctor to look at his throat, make it a game. First you'll open up, then the doctor, then it's his turn. Or tell him to pant like a dog or ask him what a sheep says: "Baaaaaah!"
Give some space
Some tweens balk at being undressed or examined with a parent in the exam room. Meet your kid halfway by stepping out while she changes into a gown and giving her a few minutes alone with the doctor if she wants to ask some questions privately.
Coping with Shots
Ease the ouch
An ice pack or a numbing cream applied to the site of a shot can lessen pain somewhat; the trick is finding out beforehand exactly where the injection will be. An easier option may be to give your child ibuprofen or acetaminophen a half hour before a shot. Ask your child's doc what he or she advises.
Breastfeed after an injection
"Nursing during a shot may create a bad association with feeding," says Jennifer Shu, M.D., a pediatrician and coauthor of Heading Home With Your Newborn. Latch your baby on immediately post-prick to calm him.
Sweeten the shot
Offer your baby a pacifier dipped in a sugar-water solution to suck on.
Squirming is a normal reaction to discomfort, so have your little wiggle-worm sit on your lap during a shot. "If you have to restrain him, it'll be like a big, tight hug," says Claire McCarthy, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who is raising five children.
Instead of a flu shot (recommended for all children between 6 months and 18 years old), ask about the nasal-spray flu vaccine, which is safe for older kids who are not members of a high-risk group. And combo vaccines, such as Pentacel, add up to fewer injections overall.
Worst answer to "Will I get a shot?": "No." Runner-up: "Yes, but it won't hurt a bit." Since you can't be 100 percent sure your kid won't face the needle (for, say, a new or missed vaccine, or an antibiotic), it's best to candidly reply, "I don't know." If she asks if it will hurt, lead with the hardest news first; she's likely to home in on the last thing you say, so make that the part she'll want to remember, as in, "It will hurt for a second, but then it won't anymore."
Let him watch if he wants to
Parents often think kids will be less upset if they don't see the needle, but some children need to see it. Think about whether your child's personality is confronting or avoidant before you cover his eyes or get him to look away.
Devise a decoy
Studies show distraction really works. Turn a young child's attention by singing songs, making faces, talking up the cool Band-Aid he'll get after the shot. Let an older kid play with a handheld video game.
Help an older kid psych herself out
Explain that worrying about the shot focuses the brain on pain more than the actual shot, which lasts a second. Suggest she think about something she enjoys -- the routine she's learning in dance class, or playing with the dog.
Doing Your Part to Make Things Easier
Tell it like it is
Report symptoms and events honestly -- even if you think you're overreacting or you're embarrassed to admit, say, that you spilled the antibiotic and your sick child never actually finished it all. And don't be afraid to trust your gut, says Alika Rosser of Gray, GA. Her daughter, Isabelle, now 3, snored loudly and was sick a lot as a baby; it took a year before she was diagnosed with large, infected adenoids requiring surgery. "We knew something was wrong for a long time. I wish I'd spoken up sooner."
Use crib notes
With each baby, I had to learn everything all over again, like when to introduce solids. So I kept a notebook in my purse to jot down questions like this (and the answers, of course!). A designated "kids' doc" notebook is also a great place to track symptoms and concerns, making it easier to convey them during the appointment.
Allow your child to speak
By school age, kids are old enough to become active partners in their well-being. Don't be too quick to answer questions directed at your child, or talk about him as if he isn't in the room. "He'll feel excluded," explains Dr. Heim, "especially if he has a condition like asthma or diabetes. He needs to learn how to help manage his illness; you can't be there twenty-four seven."
Share the good news
"Tell me what you aren't worried about," says Don Middleton, M.D., a family physician in Pittsburgh -- bedtime routines, favorite activities, an awesome report card. This sort of info provides clues to important neurological, cognitive, and social milestones in your child's development. Bonus: Hearing you describe what a smart, talented kid she is can help her develop a sense of self-worth.
When it's all over, give your child as many hugs, kisses, high-fives, and You did its! as he wants. Praise him for being brave (even if it took three people to hold him down so the doc could feel his belly) and then stop for ice cream on the way home. You may need some, too.
Paula Spencer is a contributing editor to Parenting and the author of Momfidence!: An Oreo Never Killed Anybody and Other Secrets of Happier Parenting.