On Saturday March 28th, we are celebrating our annual Healthy Kids Festival at Boston Children’s Museum. There will be many hospitals and health organizations providing activities to teach our visitors about healthcare in fun ways. But let’s face it. How many kids do you know who absolutely LOVE going to the doctor? Healthcare settings are often scary, and we don’t have a lot of control over what happens there. For young children, their fear that is fueled by imaginary thinking, lack of prediction, and previous negative experience can make the healthcare experience even more difficult. I’ve written about how to make the doctor’s visit easier before. This time, I want to focus on distraction techniques to get through possibly difficult hospital visits!
1. What is the distraction technique?
Distraction is a great coping technique that anyone can use to divert attention from something unpleasant to something else that is more fun and occupying. When children face a difficult moment, like getting a shot, they are often more focused on the needle poking their arm, which aggravates their fear and intensifies the pain. If children are distracted, they may not even notice the needle pain, or at least it often makes the experience less frightening.
2. Distraction vs. “tricking”
Before you use the technique, it’s important to note that this is not a way to trick kids into, in this case, getting a shot. Children still need to know that they are getting a shot and its reason (e.g. vaccination) because it is extremely important that children maintain a trusting relationship with their parents and gain confidence – lying to children only provides the opposite effect. You can approach the topic by saying, “You will need to get a shot today to make sure that you won’t get sick in the future. I remember from last time that you didn’t like it, but I have an idea to make it better this time.” Give your child 2 or 3 choices of activities or, if you are comfortable, you can brainstorm with your child what she wants to do. You can also give her some tasks, which allows you to say, “The nurse’s job is to give you a shot to help you. And you have your own job while the nurse does her job.”
3. How do I use the distraction technique?
You will need to pick an activity based on the situations. If the procedure requires the child to sit still, then you can’t use distraction activities that require movement.
Watching movies or YouTube videos is okay, but not very ideal especially for younger children, who are easily drawn into the fear of the situation, which makes it difficult for them to pay attention to the video. Instead, try activities that your child really needs to be engaged in and actively participate, rather than a more passive activity like video-watching. One of the easiest activities is I Spy. You can use an I Spy book or just look around the room. When the child’s attention goes back to the needle, it’s easier to say “You haven’t found the yellow round thing. Keep looking around. Can you tell me what you see?” to get their focus back to the distraction activity.
Examples of good task-based activities are sorting, simple puzzles, or simple crafts (e.g. sticking stickers onto a page). Although a lot of times the use of a video screen is not recommended in most parenting/child development advice, some child-friendly game apps can be a good tool for distraction (It’s just for a short period of time, and certainly for a good, healthy cause).
Infants, who do not understand the concept of shots or any other uncomfortable procedures can still benefit from distraction. Having some drops of sugar water is a common technique. Gentle tickling, blowing areas on the skin or into the ears (very gently!), or touching your baby’s skin with a vibrating phone can all provide distracting sensations. Using some sparkly toys can also be an engaging sensory experience for some babies.
Remember, tools alone often don’t provide enough distraction. It’s the engaging grownup who can really distract the child, and tools are there to help facilitate the distraction.
Come to the Tasty Tuesday programs at Boston Children’s Museum every first and third Tuesday and share your own strategies through friendly conversation over some yummy snacks!