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September 18, 2013

Music can distract kids from the pain of medical procedures

I remember the appointment vividly. My infant daughter waited unknowingly for the shots; my 2-year-old son, worried, began to sing her favorite song. My son and I got our faces up close and touched my daughter's hands and belly while the doctor administered the immunizations in her thigh. Baby Audrey winced momentarily, then returned to smiling as she gazed up at us. I was amazed, and my son felt empowered.

It turns out that there's science to support our actions. A growing body of research shows what many parents know instinctively: Music is an effective way to distract young children from painful medical procedures.

"It's one more tool we have in our handbag to help children," said Lisa Hartling, director of the Alberta Research Center for Health Evidence in Canada, who has studied the role of music in mitigating medical-procedure stress in kids.

Hartling co-authored a study this year that measured the effect of recorded music during the insertion of an intravenous line. Researchers monitored pain and distress in 42 children, ages 3 to 11, before and after the procedure. Half received standard emergency room care; the other half listened to musical selections played via room speakers. The IV insertion was distressing to all kids, but researchers observed twice as many signs of distress in kids who weren't exposed to music as in those who were. Pain, as reported by the kids, increased with the procedure in those who didn't have the music, but remained low in those who did.

Not just any music will do the trick, according to Hartling. The purpose is to distract rather than soothe, she explains, and booming, complicated music is most effective at this. One piece used in the study was "Jupiter" from the symphony "The Planets." "It's very energetic, with lots of sounds and themes," Hartling says.

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