Preparing Your Child for an MRI Scan

Mom preparing child for MRI scanMagnetic resonance imaging, or MRI for short, is an increasingly common diagnostic test for the simple reason that it’s safe, effective and painless. Like an X-Ray or CT scan, it takes detailed pictures of the body’s organs and structures. But unlike many other imaging procedures, it can get clear, 3D images without using radiation. For this reason, many children may receive one or more during the diagnosis and treatment of an illness or injury, including yours.

However, like any medical procedure, an MRI can be scary. The patient is placed in a tight space and surrounded by loud noise. And to make it more complicated, to get a clear image, they are required to hold completely still – typically for 30 minutes or longer. This can be tricky in any circumstance, but especially so for a child.

We (along with your medical team) are here to help. Below you’ll find some simple steps and tips to help you prepare your child for an MRI scan.

Helping Your Child Cope with an MRI Scan

Explain the Who, What, When, Where and How

While it may seem wise to not talk about the procedure to avoid making your child nervous, discussing it in detail can actually decrease anxiety and give your child a sense of control. In the weeks prior, it’s good to repeatedly go through the basics: what an MRI is, why they need it, and what will happen before, during and after.

You want to avoid surprises the day of, so be as specific as possible. You can describe the machine as looking like a big donut with a bed that slides into the middle. Explain that they will lay on the bed in front of the MRI and may be offered a blanket. There will also be a strap across their body that will Velcro together and be like a seatbelt. It is important to mention that the bed will move closer to the machine, but the machine itself will not touch them, nor will it hurt.

Next you can share exactly what body part will be examined and how long it will take. It helps to give context for length (for instance, you could describe 30 mins as the length of their favorite show). And if your child will need an IV to administer the contrast or a sedative, be upfront and tell them it may pinch at first, but any discomfort should only last a few moments.

Finally, you might describe the sounds or familiarize your child to them using simulator apps, recordings and videos. There are also a wide variety of videos explaining the procedure, like this cartoon from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. And of course, your child’s medical team is there to help. Ask if there is a child life specialist or other medical professional who could conduct a tour of the MRI beforehand or offer other forms of support.

If your child begins to seem nervous as you are describing these things, it may be helpful to remind them that you will be nearby during the entire test and it will be painless. They will also have a call button to use if they get too scared.

They may have many questions. Just answer as honestly as you can, using language they can understand. And if you don’t know how to answer, write the question down to ask their care team. It’s better to tell your child you don’t know the answer than to make one up.

Give Your Child a Job

To get a clear image, it’s vital that your child remains still throughout the scan. This can be a challenge for many kids, especially in an uncomfortable and strange situation. One way to encourage this, and help your child feel like a participant, not a victim, is to give them a job. Explain that their role is to hold as still as possible, and why it’s important (to help get clear images of the inside of their bodies). Then, help them practice – perhaps by making it a game.

Challenge them to a game of “Statue” to see how long they can hold a pose. If you have other children, this is a great opportunity to include them and invite them to play along. See who can hold it the longest. Or who can be the silliest statue. You could even make up prizes, like getting to choose the next meal. Some scans ask for the child to hold their breath, so practicing following the prompts of the health care team is important too.

Empower Them with Coping Tools

Like many procedures, an MRI can be a scary or overwhelming experience. That is why healthy coping and relaxation techniques are so important. Brainstorm with your child what coping tools they could use. You can make suggestions, but as much as possible let them take the lead as choice is empowering and can reduce stress.

Examples include headphones with relaxing music, earplugs, thinking about their favorite movie or book, and holding a special toy (if it has no metal and has been okayed by their care team). And of course the most important distraction of all, having you, their caregiver, nearby to help them remain calm and feel safe.

For more tips and techniques to help you child, visit the Children page.

Write Down the Plan and Practice

Having a plan written down on paper can have a surprisingly big impact. Once you have prepped your child with what to expect and identified their preferred coping techniques, write it all down – from the start of the day to how you’ll celebrate their success. Then practice, practice, practice – especially when they begin to feel nervous for the scan.

Just like preparing for a big game or performance, practice helps build confidence and reduce anxiety. You might simply use their coping techniques when nerves strike or rehearse the entire day. Younger children may also enjoy role playing with stuffed animals or other favorite toys.

Finally, model remaining calm and good coping tools yourself. You’ll surely have some nerves to manage as you anticipate how your child will handle the procedure, and the results. When you’re feeling anxious, be honest with your child then show them healthy ways you cope. (For ideas on how to manage your anxiety, visit Taking Care of You). After all, you are the most powerful role model of all. And remember, you have a plan, your care team are experts, and it will all be over soon.


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