In 2016 my son was diagnosed with a blood disorder (more on that to come!) that requires regular monitoring of his blood. That means, regular trips to the lab to have a blood draw or a “poke.” By the time my kid turned 7 years old he had endured more than 70 pokes, sometimes 2, 3, 4 in a week. When he was first diagnosed it was absolutely horrible and I remember laying across his legs when they tried to start an IV, all while he screamed bloody murder. It has gotten So. Much. Better. So much so that we now refer to ourselves as “frequent fliers” (or sometimes, “repeat offenders”). Covenant Lakeside Lab is like our version of “Cheers,” everybody knows our name!
We’ve learned a thing or two in the past 2 years, so here are our best tips for preparing your child for lab work. HUGE CAVEAT that none of this should be considered medical advice, I’m just telling you from one mom to another what works for us. Of course, with all kids, your mileage may vary!
- No surprises. I’m big on “managing expectations” (my coworkers are rolling their eyes right now) in life and at work. I tell my kiddo a day or two before we have to go to the lab, and then again that morning, and then again when we get in the car. You may think it just causes more anxiety but I’ve found the opposite. If anything, it puts him in control and he can work through any fears or trepidation with me and my husband BEFORE we make a scene at the lab. If it’s your child’s first time, show them videos and explain what’s going to happen. (A common fear: the lab draw will take so much blood that the child won’t have any left. It’s like going down the bathtub drain – it won’t happen but I can see how you might think that.) If you’re really feeling adventurous, see if your own doctor will call YOU in some labs (I’m sure there’s *something* you need measured!) and let your child watch you get a poke, either a few days before they go in or at the same appointment.
- Fuel up! Unless they need to be fasting, have your child eat a small snack with some protein & carbs 30-60 minutes before you get to the lab. Just in case there’s any “wooziness” this might help. Also, have them drink a big glass of water before you go; even being a little bit dehydrated will make it harder for them to get a good stick.
- Ask about a pain-blocking device. We have one called a Buzzy, and some labs who do a lot of pediatric work will have them on hand (they also keep them in the children’s hospitals on the floor.) If your kiddo might have to have several labs done, they’re only about $20 and well worth the investment.
- Beware ye the rubber tourniquet. For my son, the tourniquet is the worst part. We’ve tried it over his sleeve, under his sleeve, looser, tighter, in a box, with a fox, but we just can’t find a way to make it not terrible. If you feel like it’s a deal-breaker with your kid, it’s at least worth ASKING the phlebotomist if they can do it without, or if they have any ideas to make it less painful.
- Countdown. My kid always chooses the number 7, and when the phlebotomist is ready he’ll start counting. They won’t poke until he gets to 7. For him, I think it helps him be in control and have some say-so over the whole ordeal. Which brings me to….
- Give them a chance to be brave. Part of my son’s struggle when he was first diagnosed was he did NOT want to be held down. Between sobs, that sweet little 4-year-old told me he “just wanted a chance to be brave:” he didn’t want to be held down like a “baby.” (Cue all the mom tears in all the land.) So we have a deal, if he’ll be brave and not wiggle, I will make sure that no one holds his arms or holds him down. (BUT he only gets one chance. If he wiggles, the deal’s off.) It sounds absolutely nutty but it works for us. I’m sure we have given many a phlebotomist many a gray hair, but in 70+ pokes my kid has never once wiggled or jerked away. Just give them a chance and they might surprise you.
- As soon as they get poked have them blow out their birthday candles – blow, blow, blow, great big breaths! My friend and mom of a childhood cancer survivor, said that her son liked to say “Alligator!” over and over with increasing speed (and hilarity). I don’t know if it’s the blowing (or alligator-ing) that helps or just the distraction, but it seems to make it better.
- When all else fails, don’t be afraid to bring out your Parenting Big Guns: Distraction and Bribery. Bring a tablet loaded up with the trashiest TV show you never let them watch. Offer any number of toys, candy, or ice creams to get it over with as little spectacle as possible. Let’s face it, getting poked sucks no matter how old you are. Anything we can do to make it a little better or to dry those (hopefully rare!) tears is worth it.
- Call in the professionals. I’ll be honest, this isn’t going to work for every kiddo. Some children just cannot get past the trauma of a “poke;” that doesn’t mean they’re not tough as nails or you’re doing something wrong. Talk to the child-life specialist at your medical facility for extra support, and if your child is facing a serious illness “do not pass go” until you and your child have connected with a trusted mental health professional. Your child’s doctor may have a family counselor on staff, and, if not, they can certainly point you in the right direction.
So there you have it, from a blood-draw veteran (and his mom). I hope you never have to take your child to the lab, but if you do my sincere hope is that some of our tips and tricks will make it a little bit easier. We’re cheering for you!