Mitigating Stress, Anxiety and Pain with a Robotic Companion

Children and their parents may undergo challenging experiences when admitted for inpatient care at pediatric hospitals. While most hospitals make efforts to provide socio-emotional support for patients and their families during care, gaps still exist between human resource supply and demand. The Huggable project aims to close this gap by creating a social robot able to mitigate stress, anxiety, and pain in pediatric patients by engaging them in playful interactions. In collaboration with Boston Children’s Hospital and Northeastern University, we are currently running an experimental study to compare the effects of the Huggable robot to a virtual character on a screen and a plush teddy bear. We demonstrated preliminarily that children are more eager to emotionally connect with and be physically activated by a robot than a virtual character, illustrating the potential of social robots to provide socio-emotional support during inpatient pediatric care.

Our experimental design aims to compare and contrast three different intervention conditions: a plush teddy bear (standard of care for comfort); a virtual character on a screen device; and a social robot.
We are recruiting native English-speaking children from ages 3 to 10 years old who are admitted for more than 48 hours for inpatient care at the Medical Surgical ICU and Oncology unit in Boston Children’s Hospital. During study observation, each participant wears an Affectiva Q sensor ( to measure electrodermal activity (EDA), a peripheral index of sympathetic nervous system arousal associated with affect, stress, and pain. We also video record study participants for up to eight hours over two consecutive days in order to code facial affect. All study procedures (both recording and intervention phases) are undertaken in participants’ bed spaces.
During the 4-hour recording phase on the second day of the study, each child is given one of the three interventions and asked to freely interact and play with it as long as s/he would like. Both the robotic and the virtual Huggable look like a teddy bear and are capable of expressing verbal and non-verbal behaviors through Wizard-of-Oz teleoperation from a remote laptop device.

Boston Children’s Hospital

Peter Weinstock
Deirdre Logan
Suzanne Graca
Brianna O’Connell
Laurel Anderson
Honey Goodenough
Nicole Stenquist
Katie Fitzpatrick
Duncan Smith-Freedman

Northeastern University

Matthew Goodwin
Alex Ahmed
Miriam Zisook
Oliver Wilder-Smith

Mechanical Design

Kris Dos Santos
Luke Plummer

Fur Design

Stacey Dyer


Fardad Faridi
Jason Wiser


Rachel Dziezynski


Emotion is the 4th Vital Sign