Helping toddlers cope with tests and treatment (1 to 2 years)

The most important way you can help toddlers (1 to 2 years) cope with tests or treatment is by preparing them before they happen and supporting them while they happen. Children this age can usually talk, but they can’t talk about feelings – they act them out. Toddlers also like to do some things by themselves because it gives them a sense of control.

Before tests or treatment

Try to prepare your child just before the procedure so they don’t worry about it for days or weeks. Try to be as honest as possible. Children will more easily trust someone who is honest and understands and accepts their feelings. Parents can help to prepare a toddler by trying the following:

  • Explain the test or treatment in language your child understands, using plain words. Toddlers have a short attention span, especially if they feel worried or scared, so keep explanations to less than 5 minutes.
  • Use pictures or books, as well as play and toys or dolls, to help explain a test or treatment or to practise for a procedure.
  • 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 (such as having a bandage put on).
  • Be honest about pain. Tell your child if a procedure will hurt and let them know that it is OK to cry or yell if it hurts.
  • Help your child practise the positions or movements that they may need to do during 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

You know your child’s behaviour and expressions, so you can help by watching for any signs of fear, discomfort or pain. Toddlers may cry during tests or treatment simply because they’re not used to them, not because they hurt. If the test is painful, the pain usually ends as soon as the test is done.

The healthcare team will do all 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 your 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 toddler cope during tests or treatment include:

  • Assure your toddler that they did nothing wrong and that they are not being punished.
  • Acknowledge your child’s pain or discomfort. Let them know that it won’t last long.
  • Be with your toddler as much as possible. If you have to leave, tell your child where you are going and when you will be back. Leave something of yours, like a picture or shirt, for your toddler to keep until you return.
  • 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.
  • Help staff by teaching them or showing them ways to get your child to cooperate.
  • Offer your child choices when possible.
  • Give your child a job to do, such as holding the bandage. Let your child play with toy medical kits and safe medical supplies like blood pressure cuffs.
  • Reward good behaviour for cooperating with tests and procedures.
  • Keep as much of a normal schedule as possible, including for naps, meals and play. Allow your child to move around and be physically active if possible.
  • Tell your child that it is all right to feel mad or sad. Give your toddler safe ways to express anger and other feelings, such as talking, Play-Doh, drawing, painting or building blocks. Do not let your child behave aggressively, such as biting or hitting.
  • 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 Childhood Cancer Foundation & Children's Oncology Group. Family Handbook for Children with Cancer (Curesearch). 2nd ed. Bethesda, MD: 2012.
  • U. S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health . Toddler test or procedure preparation. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health; 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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