Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are radiation-free imaging tests that help doctors diagnose a wide range of health conditions, from seizures to cancer to muscle tears. An MRI is safe for children of any age, even fetuses still growing inside their mothers, and can take anywhere from seven minutes to two hours, depending on the type of test needed.
During an MRI, your child needs to lie still inside a tunnel (bore) within the MRI machine. But lying still can be a challenge as the machine makes loud noises or children get fidgety during long tests.
That's why preparing your child for an MRI is so important. You can use many techniques to help your child know what to expect, so they are less nervous on test day.
Explain MRI to your child
The first step to helping your child prepare for an MRI is simply to talk to them about the test and why they need it. For younger children, you may wait to talk with them about the procedure until the day of, to help prevent unnecessary anxiety. However, you should give older children a few days' notice, if possible, to allow them time to ask questions.
"I always say, talk to children and be open and honest," says Stephanie Price, CCLS Child Life Specialist in the Radiology department at Children's Health℠. "Don't lie to them about what to expect."
If you don't know how to answer your child's questions, you can write them down to ask their care team. It's better to tell your child you don't know the answer than to make up an answer.
However, you may find your child doesn't want to know anything about the test. If they don't want to know, don't overload them with details. Just be prepared to help them on test day.
Use MRI audio/visual teaching tools
Price helps children prepare for all types of imaging tests using age-appropriate teaching tools at the hospital. These tools help children know what they'll feel, hear and see during the scan.
"A lot of our prep includes any sensory experiences children might have because those are the things kids pay attention to and wonder about," says Price. "We always talk about how MRI doesn't hurt. We also use pictures of actual MRIs to describe what the process is like and sound clips so they can experience the different beeping and knocking sounds."
Price says parents can find the same pictures and sound clips online to help their child learn at home.
In the hospital, Price also uses a miniature MRI scanner that looks like a toy MRI. She allows children to pick out a toy, like a Ninja Turtle or Barbie, to go through the scanner, while the child presses buttons to make MRI sounds. This hands-on learning helps kids know what to expect before they see the big machine in person.
Practice MRI scans at home with your child
Using the sound clips, parents and children can practice lying still for the MRI at home. Children can lie on the couch and try to be still for a few minutes while breathing normally and listening to the sounds.
Price also suggests using a pop-up play tunnel, if you have one. Lying still in the tunnel can help children understand what it will feel like during the scan.
"Starting earlier, and preparing about a week before, is usually really helpful," says Price. "At the hospital on the day of the scan, they've practiced and developed confidence in what they are supposed to do."
Try turning their practice into a game by timing how long they can lay still. This practice can help them lie still during their test, shortening the overall length of their time in the MRI.
Carefully consider anesthesia during an MRI
While anesthesia is available to help children sleep and stay still during an MRI, Price says many hospitals are trying to reduce the need for sedation by helping children prepare. Any anesthesia use does come with risks and typically is not necessary.
"We've seen all types of patients, even patients with developmental delays, who can complete an MRI with the right preparation," Price says. "If parents want their child to try without anesthesia, we'd love to work with them and help them accomplish that goal."
Comfort your child during their MRI
Price says parents can pack a comfort item, like a stuffed animal or even a stress ball, for children to hold during the test as long as it contains no metal. The item can help redirect the child's focus and keep them comfortable.
Parents can also pack movies or music for children to watch or listen to during the scan. But even with these distractions, there's no substitute for having mom or dad nearby to keep them company.
"I encourage parental presence," Price says. "Having someone at the bedside during the scan helps them feel calm and know they are safe. They know someone they love is right there for them."
The pediatric radiologists at Children's Health have specialized training unequaled in North Texas and surrounding states in diagnosing and treating infants, children and adolescents in a full range of conditions. Learn more about our radiology services.