February 16, 2016
“Why do I have to go to the hospital?” “Will they hurt me?” “Are you going to leave me there?” “How long will I stay?” These are some of the questions your child might ask before a trip to the hospital. Hospitals are fascinating, but sometimes frightening, places for children. They are full of beds with bars, buzzing machinery, and unfamiliar adults. Your child may be sick or hurt when she first enters this strange, new place. She may also be very worried.
For a parent, taking a child to the hospital can be scary as well. You must put your child in someone else’s hands and you may worry that there are no ways to ease your child’s fears. However, you can do plenty to prepare your child both physically and emotionally for a stay in the hospital. You can learn about your child’s illness or injury and answer her questions honestly. You can work in partnership with the medical team to give your child the very best that modern medicine has to offer. You can pack a favorite teddy bear, book, or computer game. All of these actions will help your child feel safe and comfortable.
Millions of children are hospitalized each year in the United States. Children who are well prepared for hospital visits often feel comfortable and sometimes even excited about their upcoming hospitalization. But, children who aren’t expecting the strange surroundings or discomfort of medical procedures might feel frightened or disoriented. Following are a few ideas about how to prepare yourself and your child for an upcoming hospitalization.
Help from Hospital Staff
You can find many resources in the pediatrician’s office, at the library, or at the hospital to help prepare your child for his hospital visit. Some doctors provide age-appropriate videos that explain surgery and other procedures in terms children understand. Many children’s hospitals employ child life specialists who can help your child learn about a procedure using dolls or toys. Hospitals also have social workers and counselors skilled at explaining how hospitals work and answering children’s questions. As soon as you know your child will be spending time in the hospital, you can ask your child’s doctor about these specialized services.
Taking a Tour
A tour can be an excellent way to familiarize your child with the hospital before admission. Many hospitals have both in-person and online tours to help prepare children for upcoming hospitalizations or surgeries. The tour might include a look at the operating room, an explanation of anesthesia, and an opportunity to meet a child life specialist. If you take a tour, make sure your child also gets to see the fun parts of the hospital, such as the play area and cafeteria. If your child is young, show her that all beds in the hospital—even adults’ beds—have rails on the sides.
Reading Books Together
Many children enjoy reading age-appropriate books with their parents about going to the hospital. Books offer factual information that may clear up any misconceptions or fears your child has about what happens at the hospital. Reading together also allows time for your child to ask you questions and perhaps share some worries. You can find helpful books at your local bookstore or in a hospital library. Bookstores often have a children’s book expert who knows what’s available for each age group. The hospital librarian, social worker, counselor, or child life specialist may also have recommendations for helpful books to read with your child.
Whether you use books, videos, tours, or other methods to prepare your child, it helps to talk and answer any questions that arise. Young children sometimes believe they are going to the hospital as punishment. Explain that this is not the case. Children also may form incorrect impressions or have scary fantasies about what can occur. You should try to replace those fearful imaginings with the truth. But, make sure you are honest. If you tell your child that a painful procedure won’t hurt, he won’t believe you the next time. Encourage your child to ask the doctor questions, too.
Older children and teens might look online for information about their illness, treatment, or an upcoming procedure. Information online can range from helpful to wildly inaccurate. Mention this to your older child or teen and let him know that if he finds something concerning in his research that it’s worth discussing with you or the doctor.
Preparing for Surgery
Most children cope best with surgery if you prepare them by explaining why the surgery is necessary and what it entails. The amount and type of information you give your child depends on his age. Using age-appropriate explanations to prepare your child will help him understand what is happening and reduce any fears or anxiety he may be feeling. Here are a few general guidelines for preparing your child:
Help with Longer-term Hospitalization
If your child will be in the hospital or undergoing medical treatments for a long time, a child life specialist can do a great deal to help your child understand and deal with the hospital and medical treatment. Child life specialists provide play experiences that encourage expression of feelings and increase understanding. They also talk with other members of the healthcare team about the emotional needs of children and their families.
During extended stays at the hospital, giving children some control over what happens helps tremendously. Many children have definite opinions about how they want things done in the hospital. Encourage your child to express those opinions and do what you can to accommodate them. For example, your child might prefer that you hold her during a procedure, instead of a nurse. Or your child might like a handshake from every doctor who comes in the room. Your child might have a preference for which arm to use for the IV. Children fare better when they have choices and when they are prepared.
© 2015 Nancy Keene
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Much of this material was excerpted from Your Child in the Hospital: A Practical Guide for Parents, 3rd ed. (2015)