Helping kids with medical procedures and hospital stays
- Sometimes, young children need to have a medical procedure such as stitches, a blood test, an x-ray or an operation.
- Health professionals will do what they can to make the procedure or surgery as comfortable as possible, but you can also help your child along the process.
- Ask the medical staff questions about the procedure ahead of time, so you can explain to your child what will happen.
- There are many different pain-relief and distraction techniques you can use to help you child.
- Ask your doctor or hospital staff which techniques are suitable for your child’s procedure.
Which medical procedures might my child need?
Many young children need a medical procedure at some stage. This may include getting stitches, a blood test, an injection, x-ray or operation.
How can I help my child cope with having a medical procedure?
Many people find medical procedures scary. This is especially true for children.
Your doctor or hospital staff will do their best to make procedures, surgery, or hospital visits as comfortable as possible, but you know your child best. Your child may be worried, anxious or distressed. You have an important role to play in reassuring them and reducing any anxiety and discomfort they may experience.
Preparing for the procedure
Children usually prefer to have a parent with them during a medical procedure, so it’s important for you to be prepared.
Ask your child's doctor to explain what the procedure involves, using questions such as:
- Why is it needed?
- Who will perform it?
- How long will it last?
- What will happen during the procedure?
- Which medicines will be used (such as anaesthesia)?
- How will staff try to minimise my child's discomfort?
- How can I prepare my child for the procedure?
The healthdirect Question Builder can help you prepare for the procedure by creating a list of things to ask your doctor or hospital staff.
ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.
Make sure you understand enough about the procedure so you can explain it to your child. Tell them simply and honestly why the procedure needs to be done, where it will be done, what will happen and how it might feel.
Use language your child understands. Make sure they understand that the procedure will only happen to the body part that needs it. Focus on the benefits of the procedure.
You could also explain the procedure through play, for example, by demonstrating what will happen on a doll.
Try to practise beforehand. You could have your child practise sitting still, deep breathing or singing a song that you will use to distract them during the procedure.
Some hospitals have child life therapists (also known as play therapists) who can help you and your child prepare for the procedure. Call ahead to ask your doctor or hospital staff if this service is available, especially if your child is particularly anxious about their procedure.
On the day
You can help reduce your child's anxiety by bringing a favourite toy or something to distract them, such as a doll or toy, a tablet or book.
Keep very young children calm by:
- rocking them
- patting or stroking them
- kangaroo care (skin-to-skin contact)
Learn more about how to manage pain in babies.
For toddlers and older children, you can try:
- hugging them
- blowing bubbles
- playing with an interactive book
- playing a counting game
- helping them to breathe deeply and 'blow away' any scary feelings or pain
During the procedure
The medical staff will talk to you about your role during the procedure. You should try to stay with your child. If your child is having a general anaesthetic, it's helpful to be there when they wake up. If you can't be with your child, ask someone who your child knows well to be with them instead.
During the procedure, you may be asked to hold your child to keep them still. In some cases, you may simply need to hold their hand to comfort them. It can be helpful to give your child some control. They could, for example, decide where they want to sit, or ‘help the nurse’ by keeping their arm still.
Praise your child throughout the procedure. If they cry, let them know that is okay.
It is important for you to try to stay calm yourself. If you are anxious, your child may notice this and become worried too. Prepare ways to keep yourself calm and as relaxed as possible on the day of the procedure.
Pain relief and distraction techniques
Depending on the procedure, your child may be offered medicine to reduce pain and make them more comfortable.
Common pain relief medicines for young children include:
- Local anaesthetic cream to numb the skin. It is put on up to 45 minutes before the procedure.
- Sucrose: a sugar and water drink given to infants under 18 months to relieve distress.
- Paracetamol or ibuprofen: medicines that can reduce pain for things like attending to a broken bone, changing dressings, inserting or removing a drain, lumbar puncture, stitches or an injection.
- Sedation: medicine to make children feel sleepy and relaxed. The medicine may be taken as a drink, breathed in or injected into a muscle or vein.
Another proven way to reduce pain and anxiety in children during medical procedures is distraction. Here, you can help your child to focus on something other than the procedure. Some useful techniques include:
- blowing bubbles
- looking at an interactive book
- watching a video or playing with an app
- playing an app
- playing with a toy
- singing or listing to calm music
- breathing slowly or relaxing muscles one by one
- thinking about a favourite place (imagining what they can see, hear, feel, taste and smell)
Recovery and after
Straight after the procedure, stay with your child and comfort them. Feeding infants may help to calm them. Staff will talk to you about how to care for your child at home, including giving them pain relief, and when you need to come back to the doctor. If they have been in hospital, you will be given a discharge plan so you know what to do.
Sometimes children's behaviour changes after a medical procedure. You might notice your child is more clingy or behaves 'younger' than before. This is common and will disappear with time.
It can help to talk to your child about the procedure afterwards and praise them for what they did to cope. You could have them draw a picture about what happened. Discussing what they did well can help them manage if they need another procedure in the future.
Where can I get more information?
The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne and Sydney Children’s Hospital have created useful guides:
- Your child’s hospital stay
- Reducing your child's discomfort during procedures
- Children’s painful procedures and operations
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: October 2022