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Child Life Decreases Fear and Procedure Time with Non-pharmacological Techniques


child using buzzy bee for shot

Vaccinations, blood draws, and IVs are often stressful experiences for children. Although there are a number of pharmacological interventions like numbing cream or medications to reduce anxiety, there is growing recognition of the importance of non-pharmacological options to help alleviate anxiety and pain.

A child life specialist is a healthcare professional who specializes in helping children and families cope with the emotional and psychological challenges that arise during healthcare encounters. They work closely with the health care team to provide emotional support and help children cope with medical procedures. Let’s explore the significance of non-pharmacological interventions and why the presence of a child life specialist is beneficial. Research shows that child life specialists decrease procedure time, improve experience, and decrease fear in children receiving an outpatient lab draw. (2022) This 2022 study looked at the impact of a child life specialist on children's fear and caregiver's satisfaction in an outpatient blood drawing lab. Out of 150 patients and their caregivers, half of the patients and their caregivers received attention and support from a child life specialist. The group that received child life specialist support reported less time in the procedure room (3 min v. 5 min) and also reported lower fear scores. The findings of this study strongly suggests that child life interventions improve patient satisfaction, reduce fear during a blood draw for children, and increase lab and staff efficiency. Along with many other studies, the findings align with current literature that tells us that child life specialists create desirable child and caregiver experiences, impacting psychosocial outcomes for the betterment of children and influencing a child's future health care encounters.


There are many non-pharmacological options available for children and teens. A child life specialist is knowledgable about all of the options available to families, as well as being able to help find which technique or tool will work best for a child based on the root of their fear or specific needs. Non-Pharmacological Options: 1. Distraction or Alternative Focus: A powerful tool that can divert a child's attention away from the discomfort of a poke. Child life specialists often employ various strategies, such as blowing bubbles or engaging in interactive iPad games to help shift the child's focus and reduce anxiety during the procedure. The specific strategies a child life specialist use vary dependent on a child's interest, behavioral and coping needs, and body language and physical cues. Distraction and preparation by a child life specialist help to improve the overall patient experience, which have efficiency and cost-saving implications in procedural areas as well, due to shortened clinic visits, and more children seen. 2. Preparation and Education: Child life specialists prepare children for medical procedures by explaining the steps involved in a poke in age-appropriate and honest language to alleviate fear and uncertainty. Preparation may involve dolls, pictures, medical play, or videos to demonstrate the process of a procedure to familiarize and normalize the experience. A child life specialist will meet with the child or family a day or two before the appointment or in the waiting room, in order to prepare the child for what to expect prior to the experience to enhance a child's chances for successful coping. 2. Deep Breathing and Relaxation Techniques: Child life specialists often teach children deep breathing exercises and relaxation techniques prior to a procedure to help them manage stress and pain, and ensuring that they feel more in control of their bodies and emotions. 4. Medical Play: Child life specialists facilitate medical play to help children understand what to expect as well as express and process their emotions. Through play, children can gain a sense of control, build trust with healthcare providers, and alleviate anxiety associated with medical procedures. This involve medical play kits and real medical materials, where children can practice on dolls or stuffed animals, normalizing and familiarizing them with the materials that will be used during their poke. If children do not see exactly what and how something will happen, they will imagine it, and often their imagination is much worse than the reality of what will transpire.


5. Sensory Distraction: There are many tools that distract the brain from the sensation of pain by introducing other sensations around the poke itself. Buzzy Bee uses vibration and ice above the poke to distract the brain from the poke, ShotBlocker uses a prickly sensation around the poke to distract from the poke itself, and freeze spray quickly numbs the area of the poke. Through these various non-pharmacological techniques, child life specialists improve the experience for the patient, caregivers, and the medical professionals by decreasing fear and anxiety through developmentally appropriate support, education, and play. There are many options available which can appear overwhelming to parents or health care providers, however, child life specialists are experts at being able to asses a child or teen and find out which options would best support them and increase their resiliency. Child life specialists create a supportive environment that promotes emotional wellbeing, and are considered integral members of the medical team whenever a blood draw or venipuncture occurs. If you are interested about ways to help your child prepare for a lab draw, or are concerned about their coping, our team at Hearts Connected is available to help. Schedule your free consult today to talk directly with one of our child life specialists about how we can support you and your family.



Getchell, K. McCowan, K. DeGrazia, M. 2022. “Child Life Specialists Decrease Procedure Time, Improve Experience, and Reduce Fear in an Outpatient Blood Drawing Lab (CLS Decrease Procedure Time)” Journal of Patient Experience https://doi-org.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/10.1177/23743735221105679