Doctors and Shots and Needle Pricks, Oh My!

Hedda SharapanI’ve been talking with a pediatric nurse about ways to help children with their fear of immunizations and needle pricks. She told me the medical profession considers those procedures “minor” needle pain, but from what she’s seen, children think of “shots” and “pricks” as “major” pain.

While I was thinking about all of the work we've done over the years, I've come to a new appreciation for the way that Fred Rogers addressed medical situations. With all the health concerns in child care about the flu, fevers, and children going to the doctor with earaches and sore throats, I thought this would be a good time to share his ideas with you for your work with children.

There's an interesting story behind Fred's deep commitment to helping children with medical situations, and it came from his personal experience. His toddler son was wheeled crying and screaming into the operating room and not given a sedative beforehand. When Joanne Rogers told me about that experience, she said it was traumatic for all of them. From then on, Fred became determined to address medical concerns with children, their families and medical professionals.

Fred’s concerns led to a wealth of programs, books, and other materials on medical themes – going to the doctor and getting an immunization, going to the emergency room, being in an ambulance, going to the hospital, wearing a cast, going to the eye doctor and dentist. In all these projects there are two basic principles:

Let children know what to expect

When children know what to expect, they can think about it and get used to their feelings about it. It’s empowering for children when they know ahead of time what’s going to happen. No one likes to be caught off-guard. Children trust their caregivers more, too, when they get honest information. You can hear that message in his song “I Like to Be Told” found on the Mister Rogers' Bedtime CD.

Encourage children to play about difficult experiences

In a doctor’s visit, children are poked and prodded, and it’s understandable that they might feel like powerless victims. But when they play about giving exams or shots to their dolls or stuffed animals, they’re in charge. By encouraging them to pretend, we're helping them work on mastering their fears.

Here are some ways for you to help children with medical experiences:

  • Keep books on hand that show what to expect when they go to the doctor or dentist. Talk about the pictures and story with the children. Ask if the book is like their experience. We have books about “Going to the Doctor” and “Going to the Dentist,” and they’re photo-illustrated with clear and simple, reassuring text. You might want to lend them to a family of a child who has an upcoming doctor’s visit.
  • Store props for medical play in a container so you can bring them out when you hear about upcoming doctor’s visits. In this month’s activities you’ll find suggestions for what to include.
  • Ask families to let you know when their child will be going to the doctor. Their child may need some extra attention and nurturing from you that day. Keep in mind that it’s often the children who are scared who tend to be more aggressive.

Tell parents about our video-streamed segment from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on Going to the Doctor. It’s one of the most popular videos on our newly updated pbskids site. These kinds of resources can help parents who are anxious, too. We know how contagious their anxiety can be.

P.S. I’d love to hear from you about other things you’ve done to help children with medical issues. How have you encouraged their play? What’s in your prop box? Email me at, and I’ll be glad to share your ideas with our readers.

From Our Readers

Last month we asked for suggestions for favorite read-aloud books or ideas that help at reading time. Here are some of the ideas that we received:

Dear Hedda
…I have found that “Something from Nothing” by Phoebe Gilmore is amazing. The refrain “Grandpa can fix it” is so cadency and lovely. All the little ones learn to chant this… I read this with a group of Head Start little ones and even though the tale is of a shtetl (Jewish village in old European town), the children just loved it and the rhymes and cadences. A.H.

This year my co-teacher and I have ten toddlers, and only two can sit at a structured time for story so we've given it up. What we do instead is, while they are playing, one of us will sit close to them and open a book and start reading. Pretty soon at least six of them will pile on our lap or close by and listen to the complete book, and one will get up and get another book. Works much better. We will probably try for a structured story later in the spring. J.W.

I got to the point where I couldn’t bear to read “Brown bear” one more time, but the kids kept asking for it. So I decided to change it a little. Sometimes we sing the words of “Brown Bear, brown bear, what do you see?” to the tune of the Alphabet song! It really works!. We also made a photo album with a child’s photo on each page, and we use the same words. “Kai, Kai, who do you see? I see Jamilla looking at me.” The kids love “reading” it themselves. L.S.

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