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Does my child need to be undressed during a routine physical?

doctor exam room child

Young children need to know that their bodies are private and should be respected. Most parents do an amazing job of helping them know how to protect their personal space.

However, going to the doctor can suddenly create a whole new set of expectations and talking about it with your child ahead of time can help reduce any anxiety or confusion. 

This is especially true when it comes time in the routine exam for a quick inspection of your child’s genitalia, done to make sure your child is healthy and developing normally. For example, medical providers may need to assess your child’s Tanner Stage — a standard evaluation tool that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends be used to determine your child’s stage of puberty based on his or her physical characteristics.
Early or late puberty can potentially be signs of a more severe underlying medical problem, some of which can be life threatening. A routine inspection also helps a medical provider check for skin cancer as the most common forms in children are not related to sun-exposed areas of skin. If a child is interested in playing sports many clearance forms require proof that hernias are not present. 
Many older children also will have a fair amount of anxiety wondering if they are normal “down there” and out of embarrassment actively hide symptoms from their parents. A quick inspection allows the physician to tell your child, “You are healthy and normal from head to toe.” It also sometimes allows a more serious problem to come to light and be corrected, such as previously undiscovered abuse. 
For teenagers, the exam can uncover serious diagnoses like testicular cancer, which targets young men, and sometimes STDs from sexual encounters that may or may not have been consensual. Additionally, a breast exam by a physician can help find potential abnormalities and provide reassurance that certain lumps and bumps are common and benign. 
Many physicians will perform the above exam in different ways and at different times during a routine check-up. Some offices use paper gowns, while others will leave your child in his or her own clothing for most of the visit. Physicians often will use this quick exam to discuss “good touch, bad touch” with your child. I always explain to patients that, “I’m only allowed to check because I am a doctor and because your mommy or daddy are here too. No one else should ever check you like this without your permission and your parents beside you.” 
A thorough exam, along with age-appropriate counseling, can help both you and your children know for certain that they are indeed healthy and that their body is a wonderful thing deserving respect and care.


About Amy Seery MD