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 done.
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.

If your child is getting a test in a hospital, you may be able to ask for help from a child life expert, a pediatric psychologist, or a similar professional. This person can give you advice on how to help your child cope with procedures.

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.
  • Use positive words as much as possible. For example, say “The
    doctor needs to check you over in order to find out how to fix this and help you
    get well.”
  • Be careful about using terms like “cut” or “bleed,” because 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Talk about the good things that will happen at the end of the test, like going home. Focus on how your child may feel afterward and how the test may help with a health condition.
  • 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 ages 6 to
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.
  • Use positive words as much as possible. For example, say “The
    doctor needs to check you over in order to find out how to fix this and help you
    get well.”
  • 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.
  • Talk about the good things that will happen at the end of the test, like going home. Focus on how your child may feel afterward and how the test may help with a health condition.

Teens

Teens also may be afraid when they go to see
a doctor. Explain what will happen during the visit and why. 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.
  • Have your teen try to relax his or her mind and body before or 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.

Health Tools

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.


Actionsets are designed to help people take an active role in managing a health condition.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

HealthyChildren.org (U.S.)
www.healthychildren.org

Nemours: KidsHealth for Parents/for Kids/for Teens/for Educators (U.S.)
Nemours: KidsHealth for Parents/for Kids/for Teens/for Educators (U.S.)
www.kidshealth.org

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Brown TL (2011). Pediatric variations of nursing interventions. In MJ Hockenberry, D Wilson, eds., Wong’s Nursing Care of Infants and Children, 9th ed, pp. 998-1051. St. Louis: Mosby.
  • Hockenberry MJ (2011). Communication and physical assessment of the child. In MJ Hockenberry, D Wilson, eds., Wong’s Nursing Care of Infants and Children, 9th ed, pp. 117-178. St. Louis: Mosby.
  • Levetown M and the Committee on Bioethics (2008). Communicating with children and families: From everyday interactions to skill in conveying distressing information. Pediatrics, 121(5): e1441-e1460.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD – Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer Chuck Norlin, MD – Pediatrics
Susan C. Kim, MD – Pediatrics

Current as ofMay 4, 2017