Half of infants are scared of the doctor because of ‘needle phobia’, according to new research.
One in 25 vaccinations have even had to be postponed because of this fear, say scientists.
A fifth of parents said it was hard to concentrate on what the doctor or nurse was saying because their young child was so upset.
Associate research scientist Sarah Clark, of the University of Michigan, said: “Parents say the biggest source of fear is ‘needle phobia,’ which can be especially tricky for younger children who require vaccinations more frequently.
“Children’s fear of shots can be exacerbated when they pick up on their parents’ anxiety and it can often be difficult to calm children down during these services.”
She recommends parents ask child health providers for tips on how to decrease children’s fear of shots.
Having the child be held or hugged by the parent, for example, may be calming for many children.
Distracting the child with songs, a video, or even coughing briefly before the shot, has also been shown to decrease anxiety.
Ms Clark said: “Telling the child there will no shots at the visit when the child is due for a vaccination or saying ‘it won’t hurt’ may backfire and only increase anxiety ahead of future visits.”
Other parents tried educating their child about what would happen at the visit by talking about it (61 percent), playing with a toy medical kit (26 percent) or reading a book or watching a show about going to the doctor (23 percent).
Added Ms Clark: “Steps to educate children ahead of a visit can help them develop expectations about what will happen so the interactions will feel familiar and alleviate fears.”
Being scared of a shot was easily the most common reason four and five year olds feared doctor visits (89 percent).
This was followed by stranger anxiety (14 percent) and bad memories of being sick (13 percent).
Fear of the needle (66 percent) and stranger anxiety (43 percent) were the main reasons two and three year olds were afraid.
The findings were based on a survey of 726 parents with at least one child aged two to five who were treated at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Study co director Ms Clark said a trip to the paediatrician’s office can be nerve-wracking for both children and parents – especially when the visit is dominated by having to calm young patients down.
She said: “Regular check-ups are vital during early childhood, not only because of important preventive services like vaccinations, but because they provide parents an opportunity to discuss health concerns with their paediatrician.
“If a child fears the doctor’s office, health visits can be a challenging experience for the whole family.
“We found that children’s anxiety can negatively impact parents’ interactions with providers during visits and even causes a small proportion of families to postpone or cancel appointments.”
Levels of fearfulness did not differ based on whether the child saw the same doctor every visit, different ones or if it was an older or younger sibling.
Children’s distress also interfered with parents’ ability to ask questions and share information with their provider.
More than one in five (22%) parents said it was hard to concentrate on what the doctor or nurse was saying.
And one in eleven (9%) said they would sometimes not ask questions or bring up concerns, because their child was scared or upset during the visit.
Four percent of parents reported delaying their child’s vaccination, and 3 percent cancelled a visit all together because of a child’s fear.
Parents used different strategies to help their children prepare for a doctor’s visit. Some parents tried to placate their young child by promising to get a treat after the visit (31 percent) or telling the child there wouldn’t be any shots (21 percent).
But over a fifth (22%) said they did not do anything special to prepare their child for health care visits.