Ouch! Helping Your Child Cope with Medical Procedures

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Jessica Wente, MS, University of Florida, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences

“Hold still…this won’t hurt a bit.” Perhaps you can recall being told this in your childhood before you got a shot. You may also remember feeling betrayed when this statement turned out to be incorrect!

When I became a parent myself, I found myself wondering what to do when I knew my child was about to experience something painful or uncomfortable at the doctor’s office. Fortunately, today, we do know more about how to best help children undergoing medical procedures–whether it’s something as routine as an immunization or a much more serious concern. In 2011, the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine published some simple guidelines for parents whose children are in this situation.

Methods to Calm

First, be a relaxed presence for your child during the procedure. With you by their side providing words of reassurance, they should be less anxious. Ask if you can hold your child in a comfortable position, such as on your lap, during the procedure; if this is not possible, be sure to hold his or her hand. For babies, try holding them skin to skin against your chest, a practice known as kangaroo care. A recent study found that this reduced pain in preemies undergoing blood tests. Sometimes, a topical anaesthetic, such as EMLA or lidocaine cream, can also be used to numb the skin before a blood draw, shot, or IV.

Explain and Distract

To maintain your child’s trust, be honest with him or her about possible pain during the procedure, and explain what will happen at his or her level. (Medical staff should also help with this.) You can also tell them how you plan to help them cope. It can be effective to distract the child by singing, telling a story, or reading a book during the procedure. Some parents and medical staff use screens and videos to help distract children. You can also try breathing slowly and deeply with your child, or helping him or her to imagine a beautiful, peaceful place.

After a particularly difficult procedure is over, enjoy some fun together, if you can–for instance, a trip to a friend’s house or to the library or a favorite park.

Special Staff Can Help

If your child is suffering from a chronic condition or must undergo many procedures, ask if a child-life specialist is available at your doctor or hospital. These trained and compassionate experts can help children cope with pain and medical treatment. For families who are coping with the stress of a prolonged medical condition, professionals like these can make all the difference.

It’s never fun to endure a painful or unpleasant medical procedure (or to watch your child undergo one), but there are ways to help. For more, visit the resources in Further Reading.

Further Reading:

Medical Procedures and Pain: Helping Your Child

How to Help Children with Painful Procedures

What Can a Child Life Specialist Do for You?


Johnston, C. C., Campbell-Yeo, M., Filion, F. (2011). Paternal vs maternal kangaroo care for procedural pain in preterm neonates. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 165(9), 792-796. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.130

Moreno, M. A. (2011). How parents can help children cope with procedures and pain. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 165(9), 872. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.157

Photo Credits: Attila Barabas/iStock/Thinkstock

(Originally published in a slightly different form as: Church, C. (2011).Helping children undergo painful procedures. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida.)


Posted: June 16, 2015

Category: Relationships & Family, Work & Life
Tags: Health And Wellness, Parenting

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