When Your Child Has to Undergo Medical Procedures

Laura Markham's picture

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Extensive research shows that anxiety dramatically increases pain. That means that if a child is less anxious during a medical procedure, he will perceive it as less painful and will be less traumatized afterwards.

That's why during a minor medical procedure, such as receiving a shot, a parent's presence is comforting to a child, reduces his fear and anxiety, makes it less painful, makes it less likely that medical personnel will have to traumatize him by holding him down, and helps him to recover more quickly. Although the parent is obviously collaborating with the medical personnel, the child does not generally blame the parent, and definitely finds the experience less traumatic than if he were simply taken by a nurse away from the parent to have the shot.

With uncomfortable but not painful procedures, the parent can often distract the child better than a stranger can (by singing to him, blowing bubbles, making animal noises together, reading a favorite book, etc.), and this can make the procedure tolerable rather than terrifying.

But if the procedure is more traumatic and the child is too young to understand any explanations, is it a different situation? Some parents wonder if they should be present, because they don't want their baby to perceive them as involved in the pain of the procedure. My view is that a parent should never restrain their child during a medical procedure, but should stay nearby, speaking in a soothing tone and attempting to comfort and distract the child.

One research study by Bauchner, Vinci & May that addressed this question found that even with preverbal babies and newborns, the parents' presence (voice and stroking) was helpful in lessening the baby's distress.

These researchers expressly prohibited parents from restraining their child so as not to traumatize the children. They also found that parents need support and a little training so they know how to be most helpful to their kids. For instance, numerous studies show that parents are most helpful to their children when they praise and distract them, rather than just being helplessly apologetic to the child.

When kids are verbal, and even before, a great deal can be done in advance to prepare them for medical procedures, and help them to relax and reduce distress during them. One good article to read on preparing kids for medical procedures is on the University of Michigan Medical Center website.

In addition to carefully explaining what will happen and answering kids' questions, I highly recommend hypnosis, which can be used with children as young as three or four years old. Many hospitals can refer you to a hypnotist who is experienced in working with children.

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com