Child Life Specialist to the Rescue: Help for Your Child’s Imaging Exam

A doctor works with a girl in the pediatric radiology department

Essentially, a Child Life Specialist helps children deal with anxiety they may experience in a medical setting. Strangers. A weird machine. Loud noises. It’s enough to make anyone nervous, let alone a child. At UVA, we understand that the experience of a medical imaging exam can sometimes be confusing and intimidating to children. That’s why we offer many services to calm exam-day nerves, like access to a certified Child Life Specialist.


What is a Child Life Specialist?

A Child Life Specialist (CLS) is a certified professional with training in how hospitalization affects child development. At the UVA Children’s Hospital, we are lucky to have a team of four highly qualified Child Life Specialists. These four work in many departments throughout the hospital. Each specialist has completed:

  • a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree
  • a 100-hour practicum
  • a 600-hour internship
  • a certification test

All this training is necessary for them to do their crucial job: teaching and helping children. They teach kids about the hospital, prepare them for difficult procedures, and help them cope with being in the hospital in general. They also work with families to provide services such as sibling support.

With Radiology and Medical Imaging, a CLS helps children in outpatient care who need an MRI exam. But they can also help pediatric in-patients who need to visit MRI, IR, or have a CT scan.

“Most kids fear the unknown,” said Child Life Specialist Bailey Trevillyan. “A lot of times, they know they’re getting pictures taken, but when they go in and see the MRI machine and realize it’s going to make a lot of noises, they think, ‘I am not getting in that thing.’”

An ERC MRI machine at UVA Health System

Enter the Child Life Specialist

“We meet with the child, build a rapport, make them our friend. Then we prepare them for the exam so they know all the steps that are going to happen, how they’re going to happen, and when they’re going to happen. Then the child can decide what they want to do to help make it through,” said Bailey.

Some kids choose to watch a movie or listen to music. Other kids simply need Mom or Dad to be there. A Child Life Specialist lets the child choose how they will best cope. That way, a child can feel more in control of a situation where they don’t have a lot of choices.

A girl and her mom sit in the pediatric radiologist office

Helping Kids Stay Still

An MRI exam can take over an hour, and the child must remain very still throughout the whole exam. That’s a tall order for many children! Often, healthcare providers will use conscious sedation to keep children still throughout the exam. The problem is that the waitlist for MRIs with sedation can be lengthy, delaying when the child can get their scan. Usually, the radiology schedulers will reach out to a CLS when they see that a child age 4 and up needs an MRI and might be able to have the exam without sedation. This sidesteps the long waitlist and negates the potential side-effects sedation can have in children

The CLS will call the parents to learn about the child (are they really scared, how do they deal with things that scare them, etc.) and see if they could maybe make it through the exam without sedation. If so, they schedule the exam, and the CLS will meet the family beforehand to work with the child. They’ll even go back with them and make sure they’re okay during the exam.

“Sometimes parents think it will be easier for the child to just go to sleep so they don’t have to be scared, but sometimes you can make it into a positive experience without having to sedate them,” said Bailey. “They may feel a poke for an IV, but once they are in the machine, nothing hurts them or touches them.”

A mom with her two kids in the pediatric radiologist office

Helping Parents Prepare Their Children

If your child is having an MRI or other medical imaging exam, Bailey recommends that you simply be open and honest about what is going to happen.

“Find pictures of the machine so they aren’t shocked when they see it. Find videos of the sounds so they can get used to them. Just be honest and let them know.”

You can learn more about the Child Life Profession and a Child Life Specialist’s education, or check out seven facts about these wonderful specialists. If you would like to have a Child Life Specialist work with your child for their MRI, talk to your scheduler.

If you want to reach out to our Child Life Specialists, send them an email, and be sure to catch up with some of the awesome things they’re doing at the hospital by following uva_childlife on Instagram.

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