Pain Can Be Avoided
If you ask any parent whether her child's doctor offers special treatment before administering immunizations, blood tests, or other procedures, you're likely to get a blank stare in response. One fascinating study found that most parents would be willing to stay an hour longer at their pediatrician's office to avoid pain for their child, and three-quarters said they'd pay $15 for any method to eliminate pain. (A third of parents would pay more than $100!)
"It's important to be an advocate for your child," says Dr. Walco. But the truth is that even parents who know about available pain-relief options don't always insist on them. Dr. Anand remembers when his own daughter was born in a Boston hospital and needed a blood test. Before pricking her foot, a nurse told him, "Don't worry, she won't feel any pain." Dr. Anand replied, "But I know that babies do feel pain." The nurse smiled at him condescendingly and said, "You're just being a dad." With that rebuke, Dr. Anand remained silent as the nurse drew the blood.
Sometimes, I think back with regret on how aggravated I've become while looking into an uncooperative toddler's ears or listening to a screaming baby. Faced with distraught children, it's easy for parents and pediatricians to get frustrated, but our own tension can send kids into a downward spiral. It's not hard, though, to do blood tests or give vaccines painlessly. No major medical breakthroughs are required, and the costs are minimal. As I've learned, you just need to prepare.
Recently, for example, an infant in my pediatric cardiology clinic needed a blood test, and her mother requested that it be as pain-free as possible. Before the appointment, as I often do, I called in a prescription for a topical anesthetic cream called EMLA (the cost at a local pharmacy was $2 per dose), and the mother applied it to her baby's arm an hour in advance of our visit. The cream gets absorbed into the skin so the prick doesn't hurt.
A few minutes before the needle stick, we gave the baby a pacifier dipped in sugar water, which is thought to promote the release of pleasure-producing endorphins in the brain. (Research has shown that sugar solutions alone eliminate needle pain in up to 80 percent of infants.) We then wrapped her in a blanket, exposed her arm, and her mother distracted her with pictures on her cell phone. Our nurse tied on a small tourniquet and drew a quarter-teaspoon of blood.
Remarkably, the baby never cried. Not only did we spare her from pain, but in some small way, I think we also enhanced their mother-child bond. Instead of feeling helpless, her mother felt empowered because she had successfully comforted her daughter.