How to Help Your Child Through a Medical Procedure

Preparing for your child’s first or next medical procedure, whether it’s a blood draw, x-ray or surgery, can feel overwhelming and scary. Not only are you worried about your child’s health, but you’re also likely concerned about how they may react to the news that they need a procedure.

To help you best prepare for what comes next, we’ve created this list of ideas of how to help kids get through medical procedures. 

Before the Procedure

Talk With Them About What They Can Expect

Abby and her mom Jennifer walking side by side.
Abby and her mom Jennifer walking side by side.

Kids are often afraid of what they don’t understand. Help keep the fear at bay for your child by talking with them about what’s coming. 

What you say, how you say it and when you say it are all things you’ll want to think about in advance. Each of these is dependent upon your child’s age and developmental level.

Many parents ask when they should tell their children about their upcoming procedures. Here are general guidelines to follow:

  • Toddlers. Little ones need only about one days’ notice about their procedure.
  • Preschoolers. Younger children can handle a little more notice, so consider telling them three-to-five days beforehand. 
  • School-aged. Older, school-aged children can hear about their procedure up to one week in advance.
  • Teenagers. You can tell adolescents about their procedure as soon as it’s been deemed necessary.

What you tell your child, and how you share that information, also depends on their age.

  • Toddlers and preschoolers: Use simple words to share what is happening and why. Consider using dolls or role play to help them understand things better.  
  • School-aged: Again, use simpler words to describe what’s happening. While you can share more with your child, do so in small chunks so you don’t overwhelm them. Let them lead the discussion and answer their questions honestly.
  • Teenagers: Adolescents can generally handle more detailed information. They’ll have many questions and may want to research things on their own. Support them, encourage them to ask questions and help them in their research efforts. 

Keep in mind, however, that these guidelines are just that—guidelines. You know your child best—share what you know they can handle.

Tour the Hospital or Clinic in Advance, if Possible

Fear of the unknown is a big thing for adults and kids alike. One potential way to eliminate some of the unknown is to tour the facility where your child’s medical procedure will take place. Seeing the rooms and potentially meeting some or all of their care team in advance can alleviate many concerns.

Note: Not every clinic or hospital allows tours. And many have eliminated the option temporarily due to COVID-19. The best way to know if a tour is possible is to contact the facility in advance.

Help Them Pack for Their Hospital Stay

If your child’s procedure will require them to stay in the hospital for any length of time, include them in the packing preparations. No matter the length of their stay, focus on packing comfort items such as plushies, blankets and pillows. Other recommended items to pack for a hospital stay include:

  • Tablets, smartphones or other electronics (remember chargers and extension cords!)
  • Activity books and coloring books
  • Books to read and movies to watch

Teach Them Relaxation and Distraction Techniques

Undergoing a medical procedure is stressful no matter how old you are. As adults, we’ve learned stress management techniques to help us through. Kids, however, don’t often have the same tools available to them.

To help your child through a medical procedure, take time beforehand to teach them a few relaxation and distraction techniques that they can use during and after their procedure. Some helpful coping techniques during medical procedures are:

  • Deep breathing
  • Guided imagery/visualization
  • Relaxing muscles
  • Distraction

Start a CaringBridge Site

With a free CaringBridge site, you can share information and updates about your child’s procedure. This helps keep friends and family in the loop without requiring individual phone calls, texts or emails. 

A CaringBridge site also provides space for friends and family to leave well wishes for your child, which can be a great source of emotional support for everyone. It’s free to sign up and easy to update. 

Start a Site

During the Procedure

What to Do if Your Child Is Awake During the Procedure

If your child will be awake for their medical procedure, ask the care team if you can be in the room while the procedure is happening. If you are able to be with them, then consider these: 

  • Hold them. Sit right next to them during the procedure if you can. Hold their hand, or place your hand on their head, shoulder, arm or leg. This lets your child know you’re present and provides comfort.
  • Distract them. Sing or read to your child. Or, if possible, bring along headphones or earbuds and let them listen to music. If their hands are free, let them hold a treasured toy, play with a fidget spinner or squeeze a stress ball.
  • Praise them. Procedures that occur while your child is awake often require them to sit or lie still and to follow other specific instructions. Give your child positive feedback as the procedure is occurring.

What to Do if Your Child Is Under Anesthesia for the Procedure

If possible, stay with your child until the anesthesia has fully taken over. Talk with them and let them see you, as this will help them stay calm as they fall asleep.

During the procedure, do what you can to keep yourself busy:

  • Bring things you need to do such as write thank you cards and address envelopes
  • Update your child’s CaringBridge site as you get updates from the care team
  • Watch movies on your smartphone or tablet (don’t forget your chargers and extension cords!)
  • Stay hydrated and eat what you can to stay nourished so you can be at your best for your child when the procedure over

After the Procedure

Say Congrats!

First things first – congratulate your child! Going through any medical procedure is intimidating. Hearing positive words right away is just what they need. 

Follow the Doctor’s Orders

Most procedures have specific things you should or shouldn’t do afterward. Make sure you understand what’s required and help your child understand, as well. Break things down simply and take things step-by-step to help avoid overwhelm. We recommend taking notes, so you don’t forget anything while at home.

Keep Lines of Communication Open

Some children may not talk about their procedure at all once it’s over. Others may not be able to stop talking about it. 

No matter where your child falls on this spectrum, ask pointed questions every so often to ensure they’re recovering well. If they’re feeling pain or other issues post-procedure, follow up with your child’s care team.  

Do You Have Additional Tips to Share?

If you have any other tips for parents and caregivers on how to help kids get through medical procedures, please leave them in the comments section below. Your recommendations and personal stories offer needed support and guidance for parents going through this difficult time. If you are a parent or caregiver to a child with cancer, CaringBridge invites you to join our public community on The Mighty to find support, connection and resources from those on a similar family cancer journey.