Hand in Hand Parenting Tools Helped My Child Face MRI Without Anesthesia

A Guest Post by Elena Bonel

smiling girl in pyjamasYesterday Bianca, my 3-year-old daughter, had a brain MRI, without anesthesia.

She has already had several operations, and I had become aware of recent FDA warnings and several other studies about the potential for brain damage that anesthesia can cause in children under three. Hers was a non-essential procedure, but one that could be helpful for making discoveries about her condition. I told the doctors I would prefer for her not to have the anesthesia.

Instead, I asked the doctors if they could allow me to just help her relax and sleep through the scan, which involves laying completely still for close to half an hour in a claustrophobic machine that is shaped like a narrow tunnel and makes loud banging noises.

The doctors were resistant at first but finally agreed.

Days Before: Using Play To Prepare for Surgery

I Playlistened with Bianca for a few days before the test was to happen, making up a game about being in a spaceship and wearing a helmet. I was the clumsy assistant astronaut who was afraid of the strong noises in outer space and could not sleep. She was the captain, in control. Her siblings joined in, and she laughed a lot.

She loved it so much we made up a song about it.

I also explained how the exam would work and that I would be lying next to her; I said we would sleep together in our spaceship. She asked lots of questions. I answered and made her laugh about that too, getting things wrong and letting her explain how they really would be.

On Surgery Day: My Daughter Uses Special Time To Build Trust

When we were waiting for the MRI I gave her 10 minutes of Special Time in the waiting room. It moved me when she picked trust-building play. She wanted to jump off the waiting room bench and into my arms, and she asked me to stand farther and farther away until she was flying.

Then she asked me to be her mama bear.

She wanted me to be afraid of my cub sliding on the ice by herself. She then proceeded to be the cub. She ran and slid in the corridor, and I was supposed to catch her before she hit the door at the very end. We made lots of noise and the doctors came out to see why. I motioned to them to wait.

When the timer went off I explained how Special Time works and they were very interested. One asked Bianca if she would like to jump with her, too. She agreed and started jumping into the doctor’s arms.

Then it was time to go into the MRI room.

Bianca lay down without protest, and let the same doctor put a helmet on her head that covered her face. She put earplugs in her own ears and into mine

I lay down next to her, and we sang our spaceship song. Bianca fell asleep within a few minutes and never moved, even with the strong noise that I myself found unsettling. The doctors were amazed. They had never seen such a young child so cooperative.

They asked me if I could come and explain Hand in Hand Parenting's approach to them,  wondered if we could make a video explaining how parents could prepare their children for an MRI, and relating our experience and our practice.

Using the Tools To Heal After an Unsettling Experience

Bianca slept for two hours after the exam was finished, and when she woke up she was whiny. We were still in the hospital waiting for the exam write-up and interpretation. Nothing pleased her. She began to cry and I Staylistened. The doctors came over to help.

The Staylistening was not going its usual course somehow. So I decided I would try something different, because I know she is quite resilient if given a chance, and she usually makes good use of my attention. I asked, “Bianca, is there something you would like to do now?”

She beamed. “I want to do Special Time with the doctor and with you!”

The doctor agreed, and we became her spaceship companions who had been afraid. She told us how silly it was to be scared and that she was going to help us. She embraced us and we cuddled. When our five minutes of Special Time was over, she was back to her normal, sunny self.

Emerging From Surgery Proud and Confident

Bianca requested an astronaut diploma of courage, which a nurse drew for her and once home, she told our family all about her adventure and had a wonderful evening.

Bianca was the first child to do an MRI with no sedatives or anesthesia. The doctor has now contacted me about meeting to make plans for helping other parents prepare their children for an MRI. Given the inconclusive findings about the effects of anesthesia on the brain in young children, she is keen to explore other options and reduce the need for it in her field of  Neuroradiology and is keen to share the tools we used with other medical practitioners.

From the Hand in Hand Toolkit

Read Four Steps To Resolve Child Fear or Phobias and find out how Hand in Hand Parenting's approach helps children face their fears.

Find out how Hand in Hand Parenting works as a Trauma-Informed Caregiving Practice

Learn to bring Hand in Hand tools to your work with children. Take the Professionals Intensive 

and check out all of our resources for Professionals Working with Families

Elena Bonel is based in Italy and is a certification candidate with Hand in Hand Parenting. 


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