Storytelling reduces pain and stress in hospitalised children © Getty Images

Storytelling reduces pain and stress in hospitalised children

A study of children in intensive care in Brazil found that storytelling was twice as effective as telling riddles.

Listening to stories can help children in intensive care to feel less pain and stress, a study in Brazil has found.

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Many children’s hospitals already have storytelling programmes that aim to cheer up patients. However, this research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that it also has physiological benefits.

“Until now, the positive evidence for storytelling was based on ‘common sense’ and taken at face value, in which interacting with the child may distract, entertain and alleviate psychological suffering,” said Dr Jorge Moll, of D’Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR), Brazil. “But there was a lack of a solid scientific basis, especially with regard to underlying physiological mechanisms.”

The team, based at IDOR and the Federal University of ABC, Brazil, studied 81 children between the ages of 2 and 7, all of whom were in the intensive care unit at Rede D’Or São Luiz Jabaquara Hospital in São Paulo. One group of 41 children each had a 25-30 minute session with a storyteller, while a control group of 40 children each had the same amount of time with the same professionals who told riddles instead.

Before and after the sessions, the team took saliva samples from each child and assessed their pain level. The saliva samples allowed the researchers to measure levels of the hormones cortisol – which is related to stress – and oxytocin – which plays a role in empathy.

Both groups of children benefitted from the interventions: they all had less cortisol and more oxytocin in their saliva, suggesting they were less stressed, and they reported less pain and discomfort. However, the results were twice as strong for the storytelling group than the control group.

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The children also took part in a word association exercise at the end of the interventions with words like ‘hospital’, ‘nurse’ and ‘doctor’. The team report that while children from the control group responded to the image of a hospital with “this is the place that people go when they are sick”, the storytelling group responded with “this is the place that people go to get better”.

Similarly, children from the control group said “this is the bad woman who comes to give me an injection” in response to a doctor or nurse, whereas the storytelling group said “this is the woman who comes to heal me”.

“I consider this study to be one of the most important I have participated in, due to its simplicity, rigor, and potential direct impact on practices in the hospital environment, aiming at the relief of human suffering,” said Moll.

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“As it is a low-cost and highly safe intervention, it can potentially be implemented in the entire public system, once larger-scale studies verify its reproducibility and effectiveness. We intend to extend and replicate it in other settings and patient groups and to support volunteering dedicated to the noble activity of storytelling, now with more solid scientific evidence,” he said.