Pain-Relief Secrets for Kids

Whether your child is getting a shot or having surgery, there are ways to protect her from unnecessary agony. But your doctor may never mention them.

Stopping the Tears

baby with band aid

Shannon Greer

One of my professors in medical school told me the practice of pediatrics is a lot like veterinary medicine. Neither animals nor babies can talk, so in order to help them, doctors need to speak with their caregivers, look for subtle physical clues, and express compassion without words.

But consider what pediatricians with even the best intentions do to babies. To greet them immediately after birth, we jab their thigh with a syringe of vitamin K. Before they leave the hospital, we prick their foot with a razorlike lancet to collect blood for screening tests. At many hospitals, doctors cut off newborn boys' foreskin without a topical anesthetic. And every few months, babies feel the antiseptic dab of alcohol, followed invariably by multiple vaccine injections. The cries of little children are the sound track of a pediatrician's life.

And that's just when kids are healthy. Fever can be a sign of meningitis in infants, so they may need a spinal tap -- usually without any anesthesia -- to rule out the serious infection. Many pediatric emergency rooms employ orderlies called "holders," whose primary job is to physically restrain struggling babies and toddlers during painful procedures like a bone-marrow biopsy. To treat deep cuts, we sometimes have to strap young children into a papooselike contraption, pinning their arms down as we carefully stitch lacerations on their face.

It's hard to imagine that doctors would ever treat older kids or adults this way. Perhaps we neglect pain in the very young not because we're heartless but because we subconsciously think that they're not yet fully human and thus are incapable of really experiencing or understanding pain. As a result, children suffer needlessly in hospitals and clinics, and even in their own home.

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