Pediatric Preparation for Medical Tests

Preparing Your Child for a Medical Test

Medical tests can be scary for adults and for children. You can help your child feel safe and calm during medical tests if you understand why your child is having the test and remain calm yourself. Talk to your doctor without your child present about any concerns you have about the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results may mean. To help you understand the importance of the test for your child, complete the medical test information form(What is a PDF document?) .

Try to schedule the test or exam for a time when your child won't be tired or hungry. Tell your child as much or as little about the test that he or she is old enough to understand. And always be honest. For instance, don't promise something that may or may not be true, such as saying that the test won't hurt. Instead, you could say "I'll be nearby."

Ask your doctor about any medicines that your child may have before the test to reduce his or her discomfort, such as EMLA cream to numb the skin before a needle stick. At the time of the test or exam, your child may not want to cooperate with the doctor, and you may need to hold your child still so the test can be performed. Don't scold your child for being afraid or for fighting or crying about being held still. If you act scared or upset, or if it becomes too difficult for you to hold your child, your doctor may ask you to leave the room and then have an assistant hold your child during the test. Do your best to comfort your child after the test is done.

Some common tests that your child may need include:

  • A blood test.
  • A urine test.
  • An X-ray.

Ages 1 to 24 months

Babies respond to gentle physical contact. They are comforted by a quiet and calm voice. Loud sounds or sudden movements frighten them.

An older baby may be afraid of strangers, so be sure to hold him or her in a favorite position or in a position where he or she can clearly see you. Most babies like to be cuddled in an upright position. Your doctor may need to hold your child for the exam or test.

Try using distraction to help your child during a test. Bring your child's favorite toy or quietly sing a favorite song. If you cannot hold your child, stand where he or she can see your face.

Ages 2 to 6 years

At 2 to 6 years of age, your child probably asks "Why?" about new things. Explain about the test or exam in simple words. You don't need to give long answers or more information than your child can really understand. Honestly answer your child's specific questions. If you do not know an answer, it is okay to tell your child that you do not know.

  • Use words your child knows, such as: "The room will be cool, the lights will be bright, and a big camera will take your picture." Try not to use words that your child may not understand. If you say a shot will feel like a little stick in the arm, your child may picture a stick being put into his or her arm.
  • You know your child best, so allow enough time before the test to explain what will happen. Some children react better when a test is explained right before it occurs, so they won't have time to worry or dream about the test. Children at this age have trouble separating fact from fantasy and have very active imaginations. Or your child may react better if he or she has some time to talk with you about what will happen before the visit.
  • Explain what you need to in a quiet and confident voice so that your child can understand what will happen. Be honest. This will help keep your child from imagining something awful. Compare the length of the test with how long it takes your child to do a task at home, such as brushing his or her teeth or singing a favorite song. If you want help, you could ask the doctor or nurse to explain what is going to happen.
  • Ask your doctor to allow your child to touch any of the objects used in the test or exam that are appropriate for a child to handle. Most children are calmed by seeing and feeling that the object is just a piece of equipment. But it is important that your doctor keep any frightening equipment out of sight until it is needed.
  • Be careful about using terms like "cut" or "bleed," as your child may imagine more blood than there will be. Try to use examples from your child's life, such as when he or she scraped a knee, to describe the amount of blood.
  • If you know your child will need to stay still for the exam or test, practice this fun and simple exercise: Ask your child to stay still, then to wiggle, then to stay still again. Practicing this may help your child feel more in control during the test.
  • Bring your child's favorite book or toy to help distract your child during the test. See if your child might be able to watch a movie during the test.
  • You may also want to practice "blowing the feeling away" with your child. When children believe they can count to 3 and then blow the feeling away, they may be able to cooperate better. This may also help your child understand that the test will not take very long.

Ages 6 to 12 years

Children between the ages 6 and 12 may be afraid of doctors. If your child is old enough to understand that he or she needs this test, explain what will happen during the visit. Always be honest with your child. If you want help, you could ask the doctor or nurse to explain what is going to happen.

  • School-age children are interested in how things work, so your child may have many questions about what the test shows and why it is needed.
  • Younger children in this age group may also benefit from having a test explained right before it is done rather than days ahead of time so they do not have time to worry or dream about the test.
  • Help your child talk about his or her fears through play. Younger children in this age group may like you to pretend to give a doll the same exam or test while they watch. Then let your child perform the test on the doll.
  • Children in this age group are very concerned about their bodies. Help your child express his or her concerns so he or she can feel part of the process. If there is a chance for your child to make a choice (even as simple as the color of gown to wear), allow it. Your child may be more cooperative if you let him or her make reasonable choices.
  • Bring your child's favorite book or toy to help distract your child during the test. See if your child might be able to watch a movie during the test.

Teens

Teens also may be afraid when they go to see a doctor. Explain what will happen during the visit. Be up-front and honest with your child. If you want help, you could ask the doctor or nurse to explain what is going to happen.

  • Allow your teen to ask questions. Also allow your teen to speak with the doctor without your being present if he or she wishes. Your child's doctor can give you and your teen guidelines on the confidentiality of the visit.
  • If there is a chance for your teen to make a choice, allow it. Teens need to have some control in their lives and may be more cooperative when they are allowed to make reasonable choices.
  • Encourage your teen to bring a book or game to help pass the time during the test. Ask if your teen might be able to watch a movie during the test.

You may want to tell your child that even grown-ups feel anxious about exams and tests. This can help your child understand that it is normal to worry.

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Pagana KD, Pagana TJ (2006). Mosby’s Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests, 3rd ed. St. Louis: Mosby.
  • Wong DL, et al. (2003). Communicating with familes. In Wong's Nursing Care of Infants and Children, 7th ed. St. Louis: Mosby.

Credits

Author Debby Golonka, MPH
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Tracy Landauer
Primary Medical Reviewer Michael J. Sexton, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer Thomas Emmett Francoeur, MDCM, CSPQ, FRCPC - Pediatrics
Last Updated March 20, 2008

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