Is Children's Participation in Health Research Possible?

Some people wonder if children’s participation in health research is ethical or possible. Well, although it may seem impossible, experts comply with strict ethical requirements that allow research to be done on children.
Is Children's Participation in Health Research Possible?

Last update: 19 May, 2021

Until recently, just thinking about children’s participation in health research made people uneasy and even upset. However, things seem to be changing nowadays, meaning that children can now participate in this type of research.

In fact, researchers state that these practices are necessary. After all, otherwise, there won’t be a way to improve medical assistance and programs to help children lead healthy lifestyles.

What should you know about it?

Children’s participation in health research

It’s important to highlight that children’s bodies aren’t the same as that of adults. Therefore, they have special medical needs. Thus, when drugs aren’t tested in children, it leads to “therapeutic orphanhood”.

Although this concept may seem curious, it’s simply an expression that states that children are orphans in this regard. It doesn’t seek to spread panic but rather to help people reflect on the importance that, in certain circumstances, it’s necessary to conduct studies on children and teens.

It must be done with ethical precautions and the corresponding protection and the authorization of the parents or guardians in the case of minors.

A sick child.
Children’s bodies aren’t the same as that of adults. This is why they need to participate in health studies.

Pharmaceutical product testing

“Children first” doesn’t apply in these cases. Unlike other times when children are definitely the priority, as far as research is concerned, drug product testing is conducted in the following order:

  • First in animals, not adults.
  • Then, in smaller animals.
  • After that, in adult humans.
  • Finally, in children, if the drug in question is for them.

Nowadays, experts have reconsidered the use of animals and are seeking alternative methods. However, all studies must be conducted in strict compliance with ethical principles.

Let’s talk about placebos

Certain studies require comparing products being tested with another substance that doesn’t produce any benefit but isn’t harmful. In other words, a placebo.

For experts to use a placebo in a study, they need to make sure that there’s no other product, even a substandard one, to compare it to. In these cases, the use of a placebo is absolutely contraindicated and established by laws and regulations.

Research ethics committees for participation in health research

In health institutions, there are research ethics committees that protect the participants of health research. When experts conduct studies on children, they have to take more precautions.

Nothing is left to chance

Although conducting health research on children is possible, nothing should be left to chance. The experts have to be very thorough. They need to provide information to both the parents and the child, according to their comprehension skills.

A baby at a pediatrician checkup.
Professionals must be more rigorous when children are involved in health research.

Participation in health research: altruism and solidarity

Although children’s participation in health research usually has the goal of finding a medicine to cure or relieve a certain childhood disease, it’s essential to know that, according to the different phases or stages of the research, not only the child but third parties will benefit.

Nevertheless, research doesn’t always yield satisfactory results. This is why we mentioned altruism. The underlying question is: how much can we expose a child for the benefit of third parties? Does this answer depend on whether the child is healthy or has a certain disease?

Fortunately, and given the importance of regular childhood check-ups, children are usually in good health. However, some require treatments proven on other children.

The international research project entitled “Ethical research involving children” seeks to contribute to improving the practice of research with children through different disciplines, theoretical standpoints, and methodological and international contexts.

Unicef ​​also has extensive experience in this regard and in the protection of children participating in health research.

Is children’s participation in health research possible?

The answer is yes.

However, it’s essential for experts to strictly comply with all ethical requirements. The professionals involved should provide enough information to the minor’s parents or mentors. In addition, the research must be more rigorous.

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  • Proyecto Investigación ética con niños, Ethical Research Involving Children (ERIC)
  • Quezada, F. L. Á. (2003). Pautas Éticas De Investigación En Sujetos Humanos : Nuevas Perspectivas. Investigación en Sujetos Humanos: Experiencia Internacional (pp. 1–151).
  • Save the Children. (2000). Children and participation: Research, monitoring and evakluation with children and young peopleEpubl.Ltu.Se. Retrieved from
  • Niños, C. O. N. (2013). Investigación ética con niños. Graham, A., Powell, M., Taylor, N., Anderson, D. y Fitzgerald, R.1, 2014. Retrieved from