Public Release: 

Young children may cope better if they remember medical procedure details

Center for Advancing Health

Even young children recall details of medical procedures, and distressing aspects of the procedure may result in flawed memories that affect their ability to cope with subsequent painful and traumatic medical experiences, according to a new study.

Children as young as 2 can remember some details of an invasive procedure they underwent six months earlier. Children whose parents talked to them about the procedure remembered the experience more clearly and were less likely to confuse it with other frightening experiences, say Karen Salmon, Ph.D., of the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

"Younger children recalled the [procedure] six months later, but their reports were less complete and accurate than those of the older children," Salmon says. "Our findings challenge earlier views that young children tend not to recall medical events."

When asked generally about their illness and hospital experience, children gave few details about it, but those they did give tended to be accurate. In contrast, prompting from interviewers led to the children offering more details about the procedure, but less accurate reports as well.

"Errors in children's recall of medical procedures may have negative repercussions, such as an increased risk of confusions amongst various medical experiences and heightened distress during subsequent medical encounters," the researchers say.

The study included 32 children between ages 2 and 7 who had undergone a voiding cystourethrogram, an X-ray of the kidneys that many children find highly distressing. The children and their parents were interviewed six months after the procedure. The researchers also had videotapes of the children undergoing the procedure from an earlier study.

Children and parents who talked about the procedure, either during it or afterward, had more accurate memories of the experience, shows the study published in the October issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

Children who were distracted by talk of other subjects or by crying during the procedure provided less accurate accounts six months later.

"Findings with adults suggest that the formulation of a coherent and structured, rather than fragmented and distorted, account of a stressful experience is positively associated with emotional and physical well-being," Salmon says.

Children undergoing medical procedures may benefit similarly through talking about the procedure, while distraction techniques could still be useful at particularly stressful or painful stages of the procedure, the researchers suggest.

"The distress-reducing benefits of distraction may be enhanced and may extend to memorial benefits if children are provided with a means of understanding their experience," they say.


The study was funded by the Australian Research Council.

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