4 Feb, 2021

Preparing your child for an MRI scan?

This article can give you all the information you need when it comes to preparing your child for an MRI.  Encouraging them to stay still as strong magnets scan their body parts may seem like a tall order for parents and carers -by providing you with tried and tested play methods we hope that children can feel happy and comfortable during the procedure.
We hope to demystify the science of the MRI test and explain the directions to be followed.  It will be essential to the MRI test results that patients stay still for a few seconds or minutes at a time, this may be hard to achieve and it may be necessary for your child to be sedated.  Read on for more information!

What is Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)?

MRI scanning is a non-invasive test used to detect disease.  Magnetic resonance imaging produces detailed images of the internal body.  It is more effective than ultrasound, x-rays, or CT (computed tomography) at detecting disease or internal damage by using strong magnetic information.  

Unlike CT and x-rays, an MRI scan does not use radiation.  An electrical current passes through the wire coils of the scanner and the radio waves are used to disrupt the body's hydrogen atoms.  

The MRI works by capturing the shifts of energy within the body as the hydrogen atoms return to their original state.  The information is sent to a computer (outside of the magnetic field in a separate room) and turned into multi-angled images which are then interpreted by a trained professional. 

The scan may take between 15-90 mins and require your child to be still during each sequence required.  This usually takes between a few seconds to a few minutes to complete.  If an MR Spectroscopy is required you can expect to add another 15 minutes to the overall time spent in the MRI scan room. 

Contrast material may be introduced to highlight the internal body and blood vessels, read more about this later.

The scan requires your child to lie still inside the scanning tube on a moveable table.  The scanner can be entered either by head or foot first depending on the model of the MRI machine.   Some scanners can be entered from the side, some may be wider to accommodate for all body shapes.  Knowing which scanner your child will use on the day may help them to prepare for the procedure.    

Your child's health history including any recent surgeries, allergies, and list of current medications should all be known to the radiologist/radiographer and doctor before the MRI scan and before you visit the hospital. 
Your radiologist may explain magnetic resonance imaging to your child in the simplest of terms before the MRI scan begins.  

Before the appointment for the MRI scan, you may want to help your child to feel comfortable by preparing them through play about what to expect.  Read on for more ideas.

What to expect on the day

Most MRI scans can be performed during an out-patient appointment at the hospital which may last up to 90 minutes.  Your child can usually eat and drink or take their medicine as per their normal routine however this depends on their health requirements.  Your doctor should advise parents if fasting or avoiding certain medications is necessary before your appointment at the hospital.

MRI scans are generally free of charge if referred to an NHS hospital, private MRI scans are often a quicker and simpler option and can be found at a reasonable price locally - How much does a Private MRI Scan cost?
Before entering the magnetic field and MRI scan, your child and their accompanying adult will be asked to remove all metals because they affect the quality of imaging.  The scan may have to be repeated if these guidelines are not followed.   

Metals to remove include:
  • Hairpins
  • Dental plates such as a retainer  
  • Jewellery 
  • Belt
  • Piercings
  • Metal attached to clothing such as zips, buttons, studs.
 Alert your radiologist to any metals that you and your child cannot remove such as:

  • Prosthesis
  • IUD 
  • Cochlear implant
  • Internal metal clips 
  • Pacemaker 
This is essential as the MRI scanner may affect the functioning of these internal metals and cause adverse effects for the patient.  These metals also disrupt accurate imaging and the procedure may have to be repeated. 

In the magnetic field

The patient will be asked to wear loose clothing or a gown during the procedure.  They will also be given headphones and/or a screen so that they can hear and see the radiologist through the 2-way intercom.  You may be asked to bring your child's favourite toy, movie or music into the MRI room to help them keep still and relieve feelings of claustrophobia and anxiety.  Earplugs may also be provided to dull noise.

They may need to have a wire coil frame with them during the scan to highlight certain body parts for analysis.  

Distraction techniques and overcoming anxiety before magnetic resonance imaging MRI

Holding perfectly still is required to obtain the most accurate imaging available through MRI scanning.  However, the normal running of the MRI involves noises such as tapping, thumping, buzzing and beeping.  Some people can feel the radio-waves heating parts of their body which can be disconcerting.  

These sensory elements of MRI scans can be overwhelming for babies and young kids and stillness becomes impossible.  How can you help your child to relax and take MRI scanning in their stride?

Having you as a parent or carer present in the magnetic field within the MRI room can reduce your child's upset and anxiety significantly.  If this is right for you and your child and agreed by the radiologist you will be prepped to safely enter the magnetic field. 

 If this is not possible you can trust in the radiologist's training and experience to help your child through the MRI scan procedure.  You can encourage your child to ask questions to the nurse or radiologist as this will help them to trust the professionals as they conduct the test and ensure quality results.

Some strategies to help kids overcome upset and movement throughout the MRI scan include distraction using music, cartoons, games, or favourite teddies.

In-between sequences there are moments of rest when your child can move around.  Allowing them to play or watch a video until the next sequence begins may encourage total stillness at the time when it is most needed during the procedure.  

You can read more about supporting your kids during the MRI scan further down in this article.  If distraction techniques will not achieve total stillness other options may be considered such as sedation.


Before the date of your scan, your doctor may advise your child to be sedated by taking a small dose of medication on the day of the MRI scan.  Another option is full sedation by a general anaesthetic although this may create other safety considerations.  A general anaesthetic is commonly used when babies and toddlers require MRI scanning.  

Sedation will require time to recover from, some children may feel groggy and nauseous. Your GP will also have to consider any current medication and treatments which may be affected by sedation.   

If sedation is not possible some clinics can provide the support of a child life specialist to help your child through the procedure.  Discuss this with your referring doctor or hospital MRI nurse.  

IV Contrast material
To allow for clear imaging and insight into the functioning of the body's blood vessels a harmless contrast material such as Gadolinium may be introduced by injection through the hand or arm and remain in place throughout the MRI scanning procedure.  

Irritation to the skin and bruising to the injection site may occur although this is rare.  Some clinics may be able to provide numbing gel which can ease discomfort for the child where the IV line is inserted.  Once the radiographer has reviewed the images taken by the MRI scan the IV line can be removed.  

It is important to note that some people will have an allergic reaction to contrast materials.  This may result in a feeling of itchiness around the eyes, hives, nausea and dizziness.  The radiologist, nurse or doctor is trained to respond immediately if any of these symptoms occur.   

Before coming to the hospital have a thorough conversation with the radiologist and your doctor to determine which contrast material is right for your child.

  • regarding the medical history (especially if your child has a kidney or liver disease), 
  • recent surgeries
  • allergies 
  • medications  
A common harmless side effect of the contrast material is tasting metal.  This will wear off shortly afterward.  Other side effects may include nausea, a headache, and skin rash.  These usually wear off shortly after the removal of the IV line and once the test is complete.

If your doctor or consultant advises against the use of contrast materials owing to the risk of complications there are alternatives available. Discuss this with your doctor before coming to the hospital as pre-medication may be required.  

Discuss your child's health with the radiologist and consultant if they have any of the following health conditions as these impact the decision to use contrast dye/material.
  • Abnormal kidney function
  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Abnormal thyroid function
  • Liver transplant
The success of contrast material depends mostly on a child's healthy kidney function.  If your child has a kidney or liver disease they may need to take a blood test before the doctor can decide to perform this part of MRI scanning.

Why MRI scans are important

Magnetic resonance imaging MRI is essential to provide a robust, multi-angled scan of your child's internal body.  Other imaging procedures such as x-ray, ultrasound or CT may not be able to provide the essential information required for diagnosis and treatment.  Without using radiation and usually during an out-patient appointment the MRI scanner can obtain high-quality images of body parts including the following;

  • brain
  • chest
  • pelvis 
  • abdomen
  • extremities (fingers and toes)
  • blood vessels
  • bone bruising
  • tissue damage
The procedure is relatively non-invasive and provides up-to-the-minute information about the body.  Your doctor/consultant can then make essential decisions regarding your child's health. The MRI scanner can detect diseased tissue better than other forms of scanners.

How do I prepare my child for an MRI scan?


Familiar songs with rhythm and melody can be very soothing to children and adults alike.  Your child may be able to listen to music through headphones (regularly supplied by the MRI clinic) to distract them from the sounds of the MRI scanner in action.  Music can also help to regulate the nervous system and steady breathing patterns.  This helps to steady the heart rate while lying still which means the MRI scanner can take high-quality images.  

Even if you can't sing a note, your child will be comforted by the sound of your voice.  Go-on, give it a go - no one is judging you!  

Toys and games provide a distraction
A favourite teddy is a great companion for your child during the MRI scanning process.  Familiarity and comfort are known to soothe children profoundly when in new situations.  Make sure teddy has no metal accessories so they do not interfere with magnetic resonance imaging. 

Games on-screen may be encouraged as a tried-and-tested method for distraction.  Your radiologist will likely discuss with you using a screen through-out the MRI scanner procedure.  

It may help an older child to play word games with you such as mad-libs, the minister's cat alphabet memory game and hang-man - if you play it together on long journeys then play it in the MRI room.

Although hospital visits and MRI scanning can be daunting and stressful for both you and your child, when we have fun we can significantly decrease stress.  

A local, private MRI scan can sometimes be a less daunting option, compared with visiting a big busy hospital. 

Play helps with understanding the MRI scan 

Play is a simple way of introducing your kid to a new experience.  Try these simple games to boost your child's confidence with the process of the MRI scan.

Explore play with magnets using ordinary fridge magnets.  Notice how they behave, how they push and pull away from each other.   Explain this is the effect inside of their body because of the strong magnets in the MRI room which give the doctor amazing results.  They may begin to feel excited about the process! Do not be surprised if your kid wants to see the images!   

Using an old toilet roll or kitchen roll tube as a make-believe MRI scanner, put a play-Mobil or lego figure inside the tube and encourage your child to make tapping, thumping and buzzing sounds much like the sounds they will hear during the scan.  Give the toy lots of encouragement and praise for lying still and breathing steadily and let your child know they are deserving of this praise too.  Your child could take this toy with them on the day.

Talk it through together
Information is the key to your child understanding what the MRI scanner procedure will entail.  Preparing them for what's ahead will help to reduce anxiety on the day.  Search for apps and videos which talk children through the process in age-appropriate language.  

Keep it simple.

Some kids will love to hear about the science of the MRI scan test, this may be enough to encourage them to lie still.  However, what works for some kids will not work for others.   

Follow these basic points to best prepare your child

  • What the room might look like (cylinder tube connected to a computer in another room)
  • Any noises they might hear
  • What they might feel (tingly warmth)
  • Strong magnets are gathering information while they lie still
  • Who will be in the room with them
  • How long will they be in there?
  • Why they are having this test (diagnosis, treatment, seeing inside the body.)


How do I prepare my child for an MRI?

With play as preparation. Use on-screen games and videos which use age-appropriate language to explain the process.  Distract them on the day or when faced with a busy waiting area, ensure the devices you bring along are fully charged.  

Do they sedate you for MRI?

Sedation is not always necessary or suitable for every patient.  Discuss with the doctor or consultant before the day of your appointment if you think sedation is required for your child.

What should you not do before an MRI?

  • Do not bring any metals to the MRI room.  
  • Check with your GP or consultant that fasting is not required and medicine can be taken as normal.  
  • If your child has kidney or liver disease they will need a blood test before contrast material can be used during the procedure.
  • Do prepare your child for the appointment through play.  Bring their favourite toy for comfort and fun books/games/magazines.
  • Do check with the radiologist that you can accompany your child into the MRI room.  Expect to be prepped for safety before entering the magnetic field.
  • Do not bring your child to the appointment if they are unwell.  Your doctor can help you re-schedule.

What happens after the scan?

Your child's test results will be passed on to your referring doctor/consultant, they may make an appointment for you to hear the results and plan forward steps for treatment.  
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