What Parents Need to Know

When children know what to expect, they feel more in control. Some imaging centers now help educate young children about MRIs and CT scans by role-playing the procedures using dolls and small toy scanners. Studies have shown that these, and similar educational techniques designed for children, can reduce anxiety and often eliminate the need for sedation.

As a parent or caregiver, there are also important steps you can take to help a child prepare for the procedure. You can also consult your physician with any questions you may have about your child's imaging procedure.


Common Imaging Tests

CT Scan

CT Machine CT (or CAT scan) takes multiple pictures of the body using radiation that are combined to make a cross-sectional 3D image. Dye (contrast) may be used to enhance the image.

Scan Results

CT of Brain CT of Brain


MRI Machine An MR (magnetic resonance) exam uses magnetic and radio waves to take pictures of thin slices of the body from different angles without radiation. MRs include MRIs and MRAs. The test may include dye (contrast) to take the image.

Scan Results

MR of Neck MRI of Brain


X-ray Machine An X-ray is like a big camera that can take black and white pictures of the inside of your body.

X-ray Results

X-ray of Hhand X-ray of chest

Before the Appointment:

  1. Get educated–In order to make a well informed decision for your child, it may be helpful to know the answer to some or all of the these questions prior to your child’s test:
    1. Talk with your physician:
      1. What test is being recommended and why do they believe the test is necessary? What are the expected outcomes?
      2. Does the test require that a “contrast agent” be given?  What are the risks and or complications that could occur from the test?  Note: A contrast agent is a liquid material that is often administered via IV, that makes it easier to see certain tissue or abnormalities.  Do not be alarmed if they first take images without contrast and then add the contrast thru the IV to take more images.  This is commonly done to compare and contrast with the goal of getting the most accurate understanding of your child’s medical picture.
      3. Is sedation needed for the test?  To get the best picture it will be necessary for your child to remain extremely still during the test (which may take up to 90 minutes).  Because of this, for infants, young children or those children who are extremely anxious or claustrophobic, your physician may recommend they be sedated for the test.  The sedative mostly will be administered through an IV in your child’s hand or arm.
    2. Talk with the imaging facility:
      1. Inquire if there are any special preparations your child needs to make before coming for the test, e.g., are there any restrictions to eating or drinking prior to the test.
      2. What protocols do they have in place in case your child is scared or if they have a negative reaction to any contrast material or sedation given (complications are rare)?
      3. How long should the test take?  Most tests can take between 20-90 minutes depending on what is being imaged.
      4. Inform the testing facility of any known allergies, previous complications from imaging tests, medical conditions, concerns of claustrophobia or concerns about or knowledge of pregnancy for your child in advance of the test.
      5. Where are you allowed to be during the test? Can you stay with your child or can you be in a location where you can speak to them over an intercom should they become scared or concerned?
  2. Educate your child:
    1. When explaining the procedure to your child, understand the steps clearly yourself before explaining them to your child.
    2. Present the information in a straightforward, simple manner using language your child can understand.
    3. Explore this website with your child and select one or all of the “Play Adventures” so that they can better understand and visualize what will happen during the actual test.

At the Appointment:

  1. Sometimes, a parent can remain by the child during the procedure and even hold his or her hand. Confirm with your imaging center whether you will be allowed to do this and let your child know what to expect.
  2. Young children in particular can often be calmed by hearing a warm personal story or remembrance that is familiar to them.
  3. When stressed, children and adults often hold their breath. Help ease your child by encouraging him or her to breathe naturally. (Note: Some procedures require children to hold their breath. If so, help your child return to a normal pattern of breathing after the procedure.) You may want to practice with your child holding your breath prior to the test ... this will make this more familiar to them.
  4. Consider offering your child a gift or special treat after the procedure is over.
  5. The best way for your child to remain calm is for you to remain calm yourself.

After the Test

  1. After the test is complete, the technician will help your child off the table (if applicable)
  2. If they had been sedated, they will be moved to a recovery area and observed as the sedation wears off?
  3. Ask the testing facility how quickly your child can resume normal activities.  If no sedation was used, they can generally resume activities immediately.  If sedation was used, it may take several hours before they can resume their normal activities.
  4. If contrast material was used, it will be passed in your child’s urine within 24 hours after administration.

Be Your Child’s Advocate

Talk to your child's doctor and ask questions such as:

  1. Could a non-radiation imaging test be just as useful for my child's situation?
  2. Does the facility scheduled to perform the diagnostic scan use radiation dose reduction techniques when scanning children? The imaging facility should be able to provide you with information detailing how they reduce radiation doses.
  3. Will I be able to go with my child into the scanner room?
  4. Does the facility have an American College of Radiology accreditation? Be sure to also ask whether the technologists have credentials, and if the person interpreting the test is a board-certified radiologist or pediatric radiologist.

Children's Sensitivity to Diagnostic Imaging

Many childhood diseases and conditions can be diagnosed using state-of-the-art medical diagnostic imaging equipment, and countless children have benefited from this technology. Still, unnecessary radiation exposure during medical procedures should be avoided whenever possible-and this is particularly true when the patient is a child.

Because radiation exposure is cumulative, the earlier a person is exposed to radiation the more likely they will have more lifetime exposure than someone who first receives radiation later in life.  It is important to discuss whether alternatives may work as well as a test with radiation.  Your physician can support you making an informed decision about the test for your child.

Every exposure to radiation adds up over time. NIA's Radiation Calculator can help estimate the radiation dose from the medical tests. See how your results compare to other types of radiation exposure.

Radiation Calculator