Helping your young child prepare for a medical test or procedure can reduce anxiety, increase cooperation, and help the child develop coping skills.
Before the test, know that your child probably will cry. Even if you prepare, your child may feel some discomfort or pain. Try using play to demonstrate what will happen during the test. You may be able to uncover your child's concerns. The most important way you can help your child is by preparing ahead of time and providing support when the time comes.
PREPARING BEFORE THE PROCEDURE
Limit your explanations about the procedure to 5 or 10 minutes, because toddlers have a short attention span. Any preparation should take place directly before the test or procedure.
Some general guidelines for preparing your child for a test or procedure include the following:
- Explain the procedure in language your child understands, using plain words. Avoid abstract terms.
- Make sure your child understands the exact body part involved and that the procedure will be limited to that area.
- To the best of your ability, describe how the test will feel.
- If the procedure affects part of the body that serves a noticeable function (such as speech, hearing, or urination), explain what changes will occur afterwards.
- Give your child permission to yell, cry, or otherwise express any pain verbally. Encourage your child to tell you where the pain is located.
- Allow your child to practice the positions or movements that will be required for the procedure, such as the fetal position for a lumbar puncture
- Stress the benefits of the procedure and talk about things that the child may find pleasurable after the test, such as feeling better or going home. You may want to take your child for ice cream or some other treat afterwards, but do not make this conditional on "being good" for the test.
- Allow the child to make simple choices, such as what color bandage is applied after the procedure.
- Distract the child with books, songs, or a simple activity such as blowing bubbles.
Play and third-person communication can be wonderful ways of demonstrating the procedure for your child and identifying any anxiety. This technique should be tailored to your child. Most health care facilities that are oriented toward children use similar techniques to prepare children for procedures.
Many young children have a favorite toy or important object that can be a tool for a type of interaction called third-party communication. It may be less threatening for your child to express concerns through the object rather than directly. For example, a child may be able to understand a blood test if you discuss how the doll might "feel" during the test.
Toys or dolls might help you explain the procedure to your toddler. For younger children with a limited vocabulary, visual examples may be helpful.
Once you are familiar with the procedure, briefly demonstrate on the toy what your child will experience. Show positions the child will hold, bandages, stethoscopes, how incisions are made, how injections are given and how IVs are inserted. After your demonstration, allow your child to play with some of the items (except for needles and other sharp objects). Watch your child for clues about concerns and fears.
Regardless of the test performed, your child will probably cry. This is a normal response to a strange environment, unfamiliar people, and separation from you. Knowing this from the beginning may help relieve some of your anxiety about what to expect.
Your child may be restrained by hand or with physical devices. Young children lack the physical control, coordination, and ability to follow commands that older children and adults usually possess. Most tests and procedures require limited or no movement to ensure accuracy.
Restraints may be used during a procedure or other situation to ensure your child's safety. For example, with x-rays
, clear test results require that there be no movement. During radiological and nuclear studies all staff have to temporarily leave the room. In these situations, restraints may be used for your child's safety.
If the skin is punctured to obtain a blood sample or start an IV, restraints may be used to protect your child. If the child moves, the needle could cause an injury.
Your provider will use every means to ensure the safety and comfort of your child. Besides restraints, other measures include medications, monitors, and observation.
Your job as a parent is to comfort your child.
DURING THE PROCEDURE
Your presence helps your child during the procedure, especially if the procedure allows you to maintain physical contact. If the procedure is performed at the hospital or your health care provider's office, you will most likely be allowed to be present. If this is unclear, ask if it is possible for you to be present.
If you think you may become ill or anxious, consider keeping your distance while remaining in your child's line of vision. If you are not able to be present, leaving a familiar object with your child may be comforting.
Avoid showing your anxiety. This will only make your child more nervous. Research has suggested that children are more cooperative if their parents have taken measures (such as anxiety reducing acupuncture) to reduce their own anxiety. If you feel stressed or anxious, consider asking someone for help. For example, to provide meals or care for other siblings.
- Your child will probably resist the procedure and may even try to run away. A firm, direct approach from you and the health care staff may be helpful.
- Give one direction at a time during the procedure using 1- or 2-word commands.
- Avoid covering the child's face.
- Ask your health care provider to limit the number of strangers entering and leaving the room during the procedure, because their presence can raise the child's anxiety.
- Ask that the provider who has spent the most time with your child be present during the procedure.
- Ask that anesthesia be used when appropriate to reduce the level of discomfort your child will feel.
- Ask that painful procedures not be performed in the crib, so that the child does not associate pain with the crib.
- If you are in your child's line of sight, do what the child is told to do, such as opening your mouth.
- Use your child's normal sense of curiosity as a distraction during the procedure.
- Ask if a low sensory environment can be created.