Dear Mr. Dad: My 9-year old son is having some medical tests in a few weeks, some of which involve drawing blood, and he’s already getting nervous. He’s had shots before and did okay, so I don’t think this has anything to do with needles. When I ask him about it, he says he’s worried about how much it’s going to hurt. Honestly, I’m a little nervous about the whole thing too. Is there anything I can do to help him?
A: You have my sympathy. My youngest went through a seemingly endless series of procedures, including some pretty heavy duty blood draws. Fortunately, she’s like me in that she seems to enjoy watching needles go into her arm. Still, like your son (and most other normal human beings), she’s not wild about the pain.
It’s good that you’re thinking about this now. Pain during medical procedures can traumatize kids and may have long-lasting negative effects (just think of how many people are scared of going to the dentist). Before you schedule the lab work, talk to your pediatrician. There are topical anesthetics than can minimize the pain of the needle sticks. And your doctor may be able to order a mild sedative for your son, as long as it won’t interfere with the blood tests.
I also suggest that you talk to the lab tech about bedside manner before the blood draining starts. With my daughter, the phlebotomist laid out 19 vials on the table. I have to admit I was a little freaked out, thinking she’d have no blood left at all. My daughter seemed to take the whole thing in stride, but it would have been somewhat less shocking to take the vials out one at a time.
One of the best ways to help your child is to distract him—something a number of studies have found is very successful at reducing pain and anxiety during medical procedures. You could read him a story, sing a song together, recite a poem, watch a video, let him play a game on your smart phone (as long as he can do it with one hand), or even do breathing exercises. As I’m sure you know, the patterned breathing used in many childbirth prep methods doesn’t actually reduce pain; it just makes it a little easier to get through.
One of the simplest distractions of all is to simply bring your MP3 player and a few of your son’s favorite tunes. A new Canadian study found that children who listened to music while having IV needles inserted into their arms in the Emergency Room were less stressed than those who didn’t listen to music.
Lisa Hartling, a researcher at the University of Alberta and the study’s lead author, found that besides reducing the children’s stress levels, there were also some positive “secondary outcomes,” including lowering the children’s heart rate, reducing the amount of pain they perceived, and making it easier for the provider to actually do the procedure.
Hartling also noted that playing music reduced parents’ anxiety, which leads me to perhaps the most important thing you can do: try to relax. Our kids take cues from us on how to behave, especially in unfamiliar or potentially frightening situations. If you look (and act) nervous, worried, or scared, your son will immediately assume that there is something to be nervous, worried, or scared about, and he’ll behave accordingly.