Easing Kids' Medical Fears

Helping Children Remember Experiences Accurately Reduces Future Anxiety

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 11, 2002 - Like most parents, your first reaction is to protect your child from any memory of a medical procedure that involved poking and prodding, sticking and stinging. But, according to Australian researchers, your child may fare better in the long run if he or she is able to recall details from even the most distressing medical procedures.

"Children's memory for medical procedures plays a critical role in their response to subsequent medical encounters," writes Karen Salmon, PhD, of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and colleagues. Children whose parents talk to them about the procedure remember the experience more clearly and will be less likely to confuse it with other experiences in the future, such as routine check-ups, says Salmon.

And Salmon's team found that children don't have to be very old. Those as young as 2 remembered procedures six months later, although not as well as older children. This finding challenges previous thoughts that young children tend not to remember medical events, note the researchers.

In the study, the researchers interviewed 32 kids, aged 2-7, who underwent a medical procedure in which X-rays were taken of the kidneys to investigate urinary problems. According to the researchers, the procedure can be "highly distressing" to children and for good reason -- during the procedure a small tube is inserted through the child's urethra (urinary tube) and into the bladder. After dye is infused into the bladder, the child is asked to urinate on the table or in a pan while X-rays are taken.

What parent wouldn't do everything possible to keep a child from remembering such an event? But, according to the researchers, even if you distract your child during the procedure, they will still remember it, just not as well. And sketchy recall can translate into unnecessary tantrums and hysteria at later doctor visits, even for minor ailments.

Salmon does say, however, that along with talking about the procedure, distracting your child during a particularly stressful or painful stage of a procedure is still a good idea.

The study appears in the October issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

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