Vicki Currie. Challenges in cannulation, Don't Forget the Bubbles, 2021. Available at:
A look at paediatric cannulation. The good, the bad and the seemingly impossible.
We have all been there – coming onto a busy shift and a child who is well known for having ‘difficult’ vascular access needs a cannula.
It can be a heart sink moment when you realise that the team from the previous shift have already tried and failed. You feel your palms begin to sweat as the nursing staff tell you that access was a huge problem on the last admission. The father of the child tells you that you can have ‘just one go’.
But what really affects the chances of success of getting that tricky cannula in? Are there any modifiable factors that make it easier or harder? And how can we feel more confident in paediatric cannulation?
What is the evidence?
There are several factors that have been shown in the literature to negatively impact the success rates of paediatric cannulation:
- Use of previous central venous access
- Attempts in the hand and lower legs
- Non-black / non-white race
- Poor cooperation of the child
- Lack of confidence prior to the procedure
A recent study by Maduemem et al looked at the ‘Challenges Faced by Non- Consultant Hospital Doctors (NCHDs) in Paediatric Peripheral Intravenous Cannulation in Ireland.’ It aimed to evaluate the level of confidence of NCHD’s and looked to identify the factors that positively or negatively impacted confidence. This is a unique piece of research that is one of the first qualitative studies looking at the level of confidence in doctors in peripheral intravenous cannulation (PIVC).
The team performed a cross-sectional national survey in 12 hospitals in Ireland using paper-based questionnaires. The survey captured data on the respondents’ clinical demographics (primary speciality, number of years postgraduate experience), clinical experience with PIVC (any paediatric clinical experience, number of children cannulated in preceding three months etc), the level of confidence in paediatric PIVC and potential factors influencing confidence in PIVC.
The primary outcome was the level of confidence in cannulation, measured by a five-point Likert scale assessing the overall level of confidence with ‘agree and strongly agree’ determined as a good level of confidence. Secondary outcomes were self-rated success in PIVC, previous experience and the effect of parental presence during the procedure.
The study had 202 respondents (45% response rate). The median number of years postgraduate experience for SHO level was three years (IQR 2-4) and at registrar level seven years (IQR 5-10.5). Interestingly ALL respondents had carried out paediatric cannulation in the preceding three months with 76% performing the procedure at least 10 times during the three-month time frame. Despite 89% of respondents rating their performance as at least average, less than half (48%) of respondents reported themselves as feeling confident with the procedure.
Only 29% of respondents were reported as feeling confident in attempting PIVC that had been unsuccessful by a colleague. 37% of the cohort felt anxious when asked to perform PIVC in children, unsurprisingly with NCHD’s below registrar level feeling more anxious than their registrar counterparts.
What was driving this anxiety? More than half of the respondents (56%) stated that nursing staff and parental presence were sources of anxiety with 52% preferring to carry out this procedure without parents present.
Specific phrases that were noted by participants to have an adverse effect on confidence before the procedure were phrases which I’m sure the majority of us have heard before:
So what can we do?
Practice, practice and more practice
The study found that levels of confidence increased with seniority so encouraging junior colleagues and supporting them to perform cannulation is key. Including sessions on simulated patient arms to practice venepuncture may be a useful adjunct for clinicians with limited previous exposure.
Think before we speak
The phrases we use prior to performing a procedure can be powerful – not just the ones we say to ourselves but those we utter to colleagues. Feeding back to colleagues that phrases were unhelpful or signposting to the above study, in a polite way, might be a good way to raise awareness of the impact such phrases can have.
We all have seen the effect a ‘fresh set of eyes’ can have on that difficult cannula. So, if you are the person attempting after a colleague has already had a go, then be confident and try to start from fresh.
What about ultrasound?
Ultrasound guidance as an adjunct to PIVC has been shown to increase the success of the first attempt with good training in the use of ultrasound a big factor in first attempt success.
This is not a mandatory or even optional skill in general paediatric training in the UK. Experience is often gained from placements in PICU, ED or time with anaesthetic colleagues. Courses are becoming more frequent . If you have the opportunity or access to learn this skill from a colleague (paediatric or adult trained) it can be extremely useful.
Vein finders (infra-red lights that magically show veins through the skin) and the cold light that can often be found on the neonatal unit (used to look for evidence of pneumothorax) can be useful adjuncts too.
Are there any scores that can predict if a child’s access is going to be difficult?
The Difficult Intravenous Access (DIVA) prediction score is based upon four variables that are proportionally weighted. The variables are: vein palpability, vein visibility, age (infants score higher) and a history of prematurity. A score > 4 equates to a 50% increase in the likelihood of failure rate with first attempt.
But if a child has a high score, what next? Some difficult access pathways have been proposed with the utilisation of ultrasound, early contact with anaesthetic colleagues to help with access and consideration of midline/ PICC/ CVC in children who are particularly difficult. In practice, highlighting children early who have factors that put them at higher risk of being difficult and early escalation to senior colleagues, limiting attempts and utilisation of some of the steps mentioned can be helpful.
Keep things calm and pain free…
Optimisation of the position of the child and parents can help to not just keep the environment a calmer place but can reduce anxieties all round. The classic ‘bear hug’ position with a parent on a chair and the child chest to chest can provide not only comfort but easy access to limbs.
The use of freeze spray or anaesthetic creams on the area you are going to attempt cannulation can help to reduce pain as well as child and parental anxiety.
The use of distraction techniques can also reduce the child’s perception of pain. Singing, a YouTube video, home video on a smartphone or even bubbles can be easily done whilst attempting cannulation.
And if despite all of this you are still unsuccessful then limit yourself to a maximum number of attempts – usual practice is two to three (two attempts usually for more junior colleagues) before you ask for additional help. This ensures that there are still some veins left for that fresh set of eyes to have a look at. It also gives the child, parent and other staff helping a break from the procedure and means you don’t become super task-focused. In a situation where the child is unwell and access just needs to be attained, this is a different matter, and you will hopefully have multiple people around with lots of sets of eyes.
PIVC in children is tough, it is a skill that takes years to get right and still people who have been doing it for years can have a bad day where they just cannot get that cannula in. Keep practising, keep smiling, think about the words you use in relation to the procedure and how they can affect others and don’t forget the bubbles!
Bauman M, Braude D, Crandall C. Ultrasound-guidance vs. standard technique in difficult vascular access patients by ED technicians. Am J Emerg Med. 2009;27(2):135–40.
de Negri DC, Avelar AFM, Andreoni S, et al. Predisposing factors for peripheral intravenous puncture failure in children. Rev Latam Enfermagem. 2012;20(6):1072–80.
Larsen P, Eldridge D, Brinkley J, Newton D, Goff D, Hartzog T, et al. Pediatric peripheral intravenous access: does nursing experience and competence really make a difference? J Infus Nurs. 2010;33(4):226–35.
Maduemem, K., Umana, E., Adedokun, C. et al. Challenges Faced by Non-consultant Hospital Doctors in Paediatric Peripheral Intravenous Cannulation in Ireland. SN Compr. Clin. Med. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42399-021-00881-9
Nafiu OO, Burke C, Cowan A, et al. Comparing peripheral venous access between obese and normal weight children. Pediatr Anaesthesia. 2010;20:172–6.
Petroski A, Frisch A, Joseph N, Carlson JN. Predictors of difficult pediatric intravenous access in a community emergency department. J Vasc Access. 2015;16(6):521–6.
Sou V, McManus C, Mifflin N, Frost SA, Ale J, Alexandrou E. A clinical pathway for the management of difficult venous access. BMC Nurs. 2017 Nov 17;16:64. doi: 10.1186/s12912-017-0261-z.
Vinograd AM, Chen AE, Woodford AL, Fesnak S, Gaines S, Elci OU, et al. Ultrasonographic guidance to improve first-attempt success in children with predicted difficult intravenous access in the emergency department: a randomized controlled trial. Ann Emerg Med. 2019;74(1):19–27.
Yen K, Riegert A, Gorelick MH. Derivation of the DIVA score: a clinical prediction rule for the identification of children with difficult intravenous access. Pediatr Emerg Care. 2008 Mar;24(3):143-7. doi: 10.1097/PEC.0b013e3181666f32.