Katie Taylor headshotToddlers and doctors—not a preferred combo for many! Certified Child Life Specialist, Child Life on Call founder, and expert Piper + Enza contributor Katie Taylor shares some advice and insight on supporting your toddler at a doctor’s visit or medical procedure.

I’ve been in so many different hospital rooms during procedures with toddlers that I’ve lost track of the number. While each situation is unique to each child and treatment, there are vital concepts that drive my interventions.

This information is designed to reinforce to YOU, the parent, that you know you’re doing what you can to support your child during stressful experiences, especially in healthcare.

Here is what we know, developmentally:

Your toddler is in, what’s defined by developmental theorist Erik Erikson, a stage of autonomy vs. shame and doubt. So, what does that actually mean? Your toddler is using her experience with the world to define her sense of will. In even simpler terms, she wants to discover what she has control over. Encourage your child to explore.

A classic example of this in a healthcare setting is the child walks into a new room, as she does other rooms, she discovers new things within the room. Her typical experience is that she is able to roam and explore this new environment, but in a hospital room or doctor’s office, she is told “don’t touch that red button!” or “keep the blood pressure on!” She quickly realizes this is not her “normal” world.

There is good news.

Toddlers can still express their need to explore and control in a healthcare setting, even when some things are non-negotiable. Let’s take a look at some of the ways toddlers can succeed:
  • Non-negotiable: The toddler must have their ears checked.
  • The choices: Caregiver can sit with her. He can discover the otoscope first and see the “flashlight.” He can get down from his caregiver’s lap when it’s over. He can hold his stuffed animal.
  • Non-negotiable: The toddler needs an IV placed.
  • The choices: The toddler can use her voice to protest. She can choose to look at a distraction like a toy, screen or bubbles. She can choose to say “no!” to any of these distractions. 
  • Non-negotiable: The toddler has to take medicine.
  • The choices: He can choose a sticker when the medicine is over. He can decline medicine with his voice. He can cry and demand things go differently. He can choose how to take the medicine (medicine cup, syringe, straw). He can choose what to drink after the medicine.

While the choice may not yield the desired outcome willed for by the toddler, they are choices the toddler is making. Parents reinforce the power of these choices by offering validating statements like, “I can hear you are upset. I can see that you are crying,” and following up with sympathy, “I don’t like the taste of that medicine either” or “it is hard to be still when you want to move.”

Parents, rest assured that if your toddler cries, whines, complains and defies expectations in a healthcare setting, they are doing exactly what they are designed to do. As child life specialists, we look to see if the toddler can return to their baseline behavior soon after the unpleasant experience. This demonstrates the toddler’s strong ability to express concerns and fears, but bounce back with the help of trusted adults. If your toddler continues to show heightened anxiety and stress that interferes with their daily tasks, it’s important to consult your pediatrician to create a plan to help support your child’s unique needs.

Katie Taylor is certified child life specialist, podcast host and CEO + Founder Child Life On Call, and a Piper+Enza expert contributor.