Sometimes young children need to have a medical procedure such as stitches, a blood test, an X-ray or an operation. Health professionals should do what they can to make the procedure as comfortable as possible. But you know your child best and you will play an important role in helping them cope.
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 (e.g. 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 longer list of things to ask your doctor.
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 the procedure will just happen to the body part in question. Emphasise the benefits of the procedure. You could also explain the procedure through play, for example by demonstrating what will happen on a doll, for example.
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.
On the day
You can help reduce your child's anxiety by bringing a favourite toy or something to distract them, such as a tablet or book.
Keep very young children calm by rocking, patting, singing or stroking them. For toddlers, you can hug them, blow bubbles, play with an interactive book, sing, or play a counting game. Have them breathe deeply and 'blow away' any feelings of being scared.
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. Or, 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 OK.
It is important for you to stay calm yourself. If you are anxious, your child may be too.
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:
- Emla: a cream that numbs the skin. It is put on 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 in the case of, for example, a broken bone, changing dressings, a drain that needs to be inserted or removed, 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. You help your child to focus on something other than the procedure. Some useful techniques include:
- blowing bubbles
- looking at an interactive book
- watching a DVD or
- 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.
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Last reviewed: June 2020