Helping preschoolers cope with tests and treatment (3 to 5 years)

The most important way parents and caregivers can help preschoolers (3 to 5 years) is by preparing them and supporting them during the procedure. It is important to make sure that the child understands that the test or treatment is not a punishment and that they did not do anything wrong. Remind children that to get better they need to have the test or treatment.

Before tests or treatment

Parents and caregivers know when it is best for their preschool child to be told about tests and treatment. Some children like to be told in advance so that they can think about it and get ready. For other children, it’s best to tell them right before the test or treatment so that they don’t worry about it in advance. Parents can help to prepare a preschooler by trying the following:

  • Explain the test or treatment in language your child understands, using plain words. Preschoolers have a limited attention span, especially if they are worried or scared, so try to keep explanations to less than 10 minutes.
  • Use pictures, books or videos, as well as play and toys or dolls, to help discuss how the test or treatment may feel. You may want to watch a movie about the test or treatment, if one is available.
  • Make sure that your child understands the body part involved and that the test or treatment will only be done in that area.
  • Describe how the test or treatment will feel and what, if anything, may happen afterward.
  • If possible, have your child meet the person doing the test or treatment ahead of time. Knowing the person may make your child more relaxed.
  • Look for ways to be physically active. This can help reduce stress and distract your child.
  • Keep as much of a normal schedule as possible, including for naps, meals and play.
  • Tell your child if a procedure will hurt and let them know that it is OK to cry or talk about any pain.
  • Help your child practise the positions or movements that they may need to do for the test or treatment.
  • Talk about how important it is for your child to have the test or treatment. Then talk about things that your child may enjoy after it’s done.

During tests or treatment

Preschoolers usually don’t have the vocabulary to describe something they may be feeling and they can’t monitor their own care. You know your child’s behaviour and expressions, so you can help by watching for any signs of fear, discomfort or pain. It may also help to know that preschoolers usually cry even if they are prepared for a procedure.

The healthcare team will do what they can to make sure your child is safe and comfortable. This may include using medicines to calm your child and reduce pain. They will watch the child for any problems and will use different machines to monitor your child’s body functions (such as heart rate and breathing). In some cases, they may need to restrain a child for a procedure, but this shouldn’t last very long.

Some tips to help your preschooler cope during tests or treatment include:

  • Give simple explanations of what is happening. Be prepared to repeat yourself.
  • Check to see if your child understands what is happening.
  • Be honest about pain. Encourage your child to ask questions.
  • Give your child permission to yell, cry or verbally express any pain.
  • Comfort your child when they are upset or fearful. Let the child hold your hand and squeeze it when feeling pain. Encourage deep breathing and other ways to relax.
  • Hug, cuddle and rock your child if they’re upset, scared or not feeling well.
  • Reassure your child that they are not being punished.
  • Praise your child for using any coping strategies you discussed.
  • Let your child play with safe medical supplies like a stethoscope or blood pressure cuff.
  • Let the preschooler make simple choices whenever possible, but don’t offer a choice when no choice exists. For example, your child may be able to choose the flavour of an anesthetic, which arm to use for an IV or whether to sit or lie down for a test.
  • Give the preschooler a job to do during the test, such as holding the bandage. Or they may be able to put their name sticker on the blood vial. Their most important job is often to stay as still as they can.
  • Try to keep eating, sleeping and bathing routines as normal as possible.
  • Be patient if children start wetting their pants. Many children regress in their toileting routines when they’re stressed.
  • Praise the child for doing things independently, such as getting dressed, brushing their teeth or eating.
  • Use play to help your child to show their feelings.
  • Don’t forget to have fun when you can and laugh about things when possible. Humour can be a great distraction.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Children Diagnosed with Cancer: Dealing with Diagnosis. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2012.
  • CancerNet. Preparing Your Child for Medical Procedures. American Society of Clinical Oncology; 2011.
  • Kline, N. E . Patient and Familiy Education. Kline, N. E. (Ed.). Essentials of Pediatric Oncology Nursing: A Core Curriculum. 2nd ed. Association of Pediatric Oncology Nurses; 2004: VIII: 230-238.
  • National Cancer Institute & National Library of Medicine . Preschooler test or procedure preparation. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute & National Library of Medicine; 2012.
  • National Childhood Cancer Foundation & Children's Oncology Group. Family Handbook for Children with Cancer (Curesearch). 2nd ed. Bethesda, MD: 2012.
  • WebMD. Pediatric Preparation for Medical Tests - Preparing Your Child for a Medical Test. Healthwise, Incorporated;
  • Wilson, K . Supportive Care. Kline, N. E. (Ed.). Essentials of Pediatric Oncology Nursing: A Core Curriculum. 2nd ed. Association of Pediatric Oncology Nurses; 2004: VI: 170-190.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

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