Advances in the treatment of paediatric diseases has led to an increase in the number of painful or distressing diagnostic or therapeutic procedures for which many children will need effective sedation or anaesthesia. The choice between sedation and anaesthesia will depend on the type of procedure. Some procedures are very common and healthcare providers and practitioners need to understand under which circumstances either sedation or anaesthesia is most cost effective.

In adults, many procedures can be undertaken with local anaesthesia and reassurance. In children and young people this is often not possible because the procedures are too frightening, too painful or need to be carried out in children who may be ill, in pain or have behavioural problems.

The aims of sedation during diagnostic or therapeutic procedures include reducing fear and anxiety, augmenting pain control and minimising movement. The importance of each of these aims will vary depending on the nature of the procedure and the characteristics of the patient.

There are many sedation techniques available but there is insufficient guidance on which techniques are effective and what resources, including staff training, are required to deliver them safely.

Sedation is not always effective enough and so occasionally the procedure has to be delayed until the child or young person can be anaesthetised. This may need to take place in a different healthcare setting or on another day. Consequently, sedation failure is distressing for the child or young person and also has major NHS cost implications.

Excessive sedation can cause unintended loss of consciousness and dangerous hypoxia. Planned anaesthesia, in comparison, is effective but might have resource implications.


Age ranges

This guideline covers infants, children and young people under 19 years.

  • Infants: children from birth to 1 year.

  • Neonates: infants aged up to 1 month.

Levels of sedation

The definitions of minimal, moderate, conscious and deep sedation used in this guideline are based on those of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA).

  • Minimal sedation: A drug‑induced state during which patients are awake and calm, and respond normally to verbal commands. Although cognitive function and coordination may be impaired, ventilatory and cardiovascular functions are unaffected.

  • Moderate sedation: Drug‑induced depression of consciousness during which patients are sleepy but respond purposefully to verbal commands (known as conscious sedation in dentistry, see below) or light tactile stimulation (reflex withdrawal from a painful stimulus is not a purposeful response). No interventions are required to maintain a patent airway. Spontaneous ventilation is adequate. Cardiovascular function is usually maintained.

  • Conscious sedation: Drug‑induced depression of consciousness, similar to moderate sedation, except that verbal contact is always maintained with the patient. This term is used commonly in dentistry.

  • Deep sedation: Drug‑induced depression of consciousness during which patients are asleep and cannot be easily roused but do respond purposefully to repeated or painful stimulation. The ability to maintain ventilatory function independently may be impaired. Patients may require assistance to maintain a patent airway. Spontaneous ventilation may be inadequate. Cardiovascular function is usually maintained.

Specialist sedation techniques

Sedation techniques that have a reduced margin of safety and increased risk of unintended deep sedation or anaesthesia, accompanied by airway obstruction and/or inadequate spontaneous ventilation. Healthcare professionals using specialist sedation techniques need to be trained to administer sedation drugs safely, to monitor the effects of the drug and to use equipment to maintain a patent airway and adequate respiration.

Drug recommendations

In October 2018, no drugs had a UK marketing authorisation specifically for sedation in all ages of infants, children and young people under 19. See NICE's information on prescribing medicines. This is particularly relevant to recommendations 1.4.4, 1.6.1, 1.6.2, 1.6.3, 1.8.1, 1.8.3, 1.8.4, 1.9.1, 1.10.1 and 1.10.2.