How to help your child deal with pain

Whether it’s an “ouchie”, a “boo-boo” or other pet name, few things in life create more helplessness in parents than a little one in pain. Here’s how you can make things better. By Lynne Gidish

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There’s often fear associated with childhood vaccinations, illnesses or surgeries, explains Dr Annemarie Oberholzer, coordinator of the PEProgram (Paediatric Empowerment Programme), which aims to empower parents and professionals involved in the care of children in healthcare to optimally support them when faced with painful challenges. “Fear plays a huge role in pain and pain management,” she says. “It’s true that pain is the alarm system of your body, but your brain also depends on your emotions to determine if the alarm is real or not.”

What is pain?

The International Association for the Study of Pain describes pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage’.
“When you experience pain or discomfort”, says Annemarie, “The message sent to your brain is screened by the limbic system (where you process your emotions). If you experience fear and anxiety at the same time, the pain impulse is intensified, and you’ll experience more pain.

Pain is, therefore, not equal to the severity of an injury and you can even experience pain if you’re in a state of terror and convinced that there’s an injury – even if there isn’t one. However, if you’re relaxed and experience feelings of joy and pleasure, your brain doesn’t see the need to go into protection mode and you won’t experience the pain as intense – or even feel it at all. This is what you need to remember when your child is faced with any form of medical procedure.”

ALSO SEE: 5 ways to prepare your little one for a hospital visit

What you can do

As a parent, you’re an essential member of every medical team and are your child’s most important source of support, explains Annemarie. “However, you have to deal with your own anxieties first, so you can be calm enough to do this.

Your own fear of needles – a fear that often started when your vaccinations were handled incorrectly and you were subjected to unnecessary fear and pain – is the reason many parents find it difficult to support their children during healthcare encounters. Unfortunately, this fear can be easily projected onto your child. Children are sensitive to adults’ feelings and will evaluate a situation according to how you react. So if, for example, you try to approach the situation as an exciting adventure to explore together with your child, she will cope much better.”

Annemarie offers the following tips to use to improve the experience of injections and other minor medical procedures for your little one:

Always prepare your child ahead of time.

Tell her what the doctor is going to do and why. You can explain how germs make our bodies sick and that the injection will give the good soldiers in her body some weapons to fight against the germs of a specific illness. Don’t say it’s not going to hurt as he won’t trust you in the future if she experiences it as painful. Rather admit that you don’t know if it’s going to hurt and reassure her you’ll be there for her. Use positive statements as far as possible, like “I’m here for you” rather than “Don’t be scared”.

Never threaten your child with medical procedures.

This will make her believe any medical procedure is a form of punishment.

Wrap your small baby to help her feel secure.

If your little one is six months old or younger, she can be wrapped firmly in a blanket to help them feel more secure. Research indicates breastfeeding can significantly reduce painful experiences. Start breastfeeding your baby about a minute before the procedure and make sure she latches properly. Breastfeed during the procedure and continue for a few minutes afterwards. If you’re unable to breastfeed, give her a bottle of formula or expressed breast milk, or let her suck on a dummy.

Take a favourite soft toy or blanket with to the doctor or clinic.

A medical playset can be of great help when preparing your child for procedures and will also familiarise her with the equipment. She’ll also cope better in future if she can re-enact the procedure afterwards and play out everything that happened to her.

If possible, keep your child in an upright and comforting position.

Hug her or let her sit on your lap. Remember, your purpose is to comfort her rather than assist in holding her down for the procedure. She needs to trust you and feel safe with you.

Distraction can be a great tool.

You can read your little one a story or let her play a game on your phone. A big, colourful storybook can also assist to block she view of what’s going on. However, she may be less anxious if she can feel in control – you can ask her if she would prefer to watch or play a game with you. You can also distract her by asking her to give a moderate cough just before the needle is going in, and again just as the injection is being given.

Try using ice or vibration, which will compete with the pain message and reduce the pain.

If your doctor agrees, you can apply an ice cube to the area immediately before the injection. Only apply for a few seconds and experiment with this at home beforehand, as some children may find ice painful. Using a small vibrating device such as Buzzy,R799, just above the area where the needle is to be inserted will also help for pain. Alternatively, you can tap, stroke or gently rub the area above the injection site with your fingers or a hairbrush with soft, rounded bristles during the procedure.

Use a numbing cream.

Remember these only numb the skin and the vaccine or medication may burn deep in the muscle. Ask your healthcare provider which cream to use, where to apply it and do so at least an hour before the procedure.

Positive reinforcement after the procedure is essentials. “If your child believes she coped well, it will boost her confidence and she’ll be able to cope better in the future. If it didn’t go as well as you anticipated, focus on the positive, such as how clever she was in keeping her arm still. A “well-done” sticker or gold star will further reinforce what a great job she did!”

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