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Research could help parents be more effective in aiding children when pain occurs

26 March 2010

A nationwide study led by the UCL Institute of Child Health (ICH) gives new insight into the words very young children use when they speak about pain. The study also focused on the vocabulary used by parents when speaking to their child about minor injuries or illness. The findings, published today in the journal Child: Care, Health & Development, aim to give parents and professionals a greater appreciation of children’s communication capabilities.

Linda Franck, Professor of Children’s Nursing Research at the ICH led the study. She explains:

“Most strikingly, we found that by 2.5 years of age children have a range of words for different types of pain and that they can describe what they think caused the pain as well as the kind of help they want. This new information can help caregivers, whether they are parents, childcare, or healthcare professionals to better listen to young children and perhaps improve the accuracy of pain assessment.”

1,716 UK parents of children aged between one and five years volunteered to take part in the Internet survey. Forty five per cent reported that their child had at least one word to express pain by 17 months of age, increasing to 81 per cent by 23 months of age. This is approximately six months earlier than previously thought. Children who had been to hospital or who had older siblings had a bigger vocabulary of pain words. The most common first words for pain were “ow” and “oh dear” followed by “hurt” and “ouch”. Children in Northern and Western regions of the UK more often used the words “poorly” and “sore” than children in the South and East. “BooBoo”, commonly used by children in North America, was rarely used by British children. Older children gave more elaborate descriptions of what they felt and how it affected them, but even the very young children were able to describe what they felt and to say what they thought caused the pain (for example: “head bump”) and what help they wanted (for example: “Need cuddle”).

There has been little research on pain in children in this age group who are just learning to use words. This study gives a clearer picture of how young children communicate about minor injury or illness, as well as about how their parents understand and respond to them. Speaking about the research, Professor Franck adds:

“We know that when parents observe, comment on and encourage children to talk, it can benefit children’s vocabulary and reading ability. It may also be that parents play a key role in helping children learn to describe what they feel when in pain, which in turn will help children get the right treatment.”

Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smithh, Professorial Research Fellow at Birkbeck Centre for Brain & Cognitive Development, University of London, said:

"This work is crucial because it helps families and professionals to avoid errors in diagnoses and to understand very young children's needs in terms of treatment. Children's language use about pain can be excellent clues if we situate them in their correct developmental context across different age groups.".

McNeil Products Ltd. (Maidenhead, Berkshire, UK) provided funding for the research. The authors are independent of the funder.

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Notes to editors

  1. Professor Linda Franck is available for interview on request.
  2. Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust is the country’s leading centre for treating sick children, with the widest range of specialists under one roof. With the UCL Institute of Child Health, we are the largest centre for paediatric research outside the US and play a key role in training children’s health specialists for the future.
  3. Child: care, health and development is an international, peer-reviewed journal which publishes papers dealing with all aspects of the health and development of children and young people. We aim to attract quantitative and qualitative research papers relevant to people from all disciplines working in child health. We welcome studies which examine the effects of social and environmental factors on health and development as well as those dealing with clinical issues, the organization of services and health policy. We particularly encourage the submission of studies related to those who are disadvantaged by physical, developmental, emotional and social problems. The journal also aims to collate important research findings and to provide a forum for discussion of global child health issues. For more information visit www.interscience.wiley.com/journal/cch
  4. Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity needs to raise £50 million every year to help rebuild and refurbish the hospital, buy vital equipment and fund pioneering research. With your help we provide world-class care to our very ill children and their families.