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. Taking some time to prepare yourself and your child is well worth the effort.
HELP FROM THE 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 child psychologists and social workers 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, ask the doctor about these specialized services.
Matthew was in sixth grade and he was worried about the surgery for putting the catheter in his chest. The child life worker showed him what a catheter looked like, then they explored the pre-op area, the actual surgery room, and post-op. She showed him on a cloth doll exactly where the incision would be and how the scar would look. Then she introduced him to “Fred,” the IV pump. She said that Fred would be going places with him, and that Fred would keep him from getting so many pokes. She really helped him with his fears.
TAKE A TOUR
A tour can be an excellent way to familiarize your child with the hospital before admission. The tour might include a look at the operating room, an explanation of anesthesia, and an opportunity to talk with children who have undergone similar procedures.
Ian was cross-eyed. We had a couple of friends who had eye procedures done. They both talked to him and told him how much better they were after surgery. They really set up a feeling of “I’ve been through this. It was fine. It was an okay experience.” It helped him a lot.
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. Although adults often cringe at hospital cafeteria food, many children enjoy walking through the line and choosing their own food. It also helps to tell your child some of the positive things about going to the hospital, for example:
- He will not have to do chores.
- She will get her own telephone, television, and remote control.
- He will get to pick his own food off a menu and eat in bed or in a cafeteria.
- She will have buttons to push that make the bed go up and down.
If your child is young, show her that all beds in the hospital—even adults’ beds—have rails on the sides.
Eighteen-month-old Gylany had the croup. Our pediatrician sent her to the hospital to spend the night in a humidified tent. I told her, “We’re going to have an adventure today. We are going to the hospital to get some help for your breathing. We’re going to camp out in a tent there. It will be just like the rain forest, but instead of raining on the outside of the tent it will rain on the inside. I’ll stay with you and we’ll cuddle in our tent, and look for rain forest birds and animals.” I climbed right into the tent and we spent the night in our private rain forest.
You might also make the tour part of an educational experience. If your child will return to school shortly after the hospitalization, you or your child can talk to her teacher about letting him do a report or research project on some aspect of hospital life. Asking questions and becoming something of a hospital expert may help your child feel more informed and in control of the situation.
READ 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. Many suggestions are listed in the Resources section at the end of this book.
Before my 4-year-old son went to the hospital, we bought a book written by Mr. Rogers, called Going to the Hospital. It showed children and their families in the hospital, during admission, having x-rays, in bed. It was very reassuring and informative. Reading books allowed his fears and concerns to surface. He asked questions he might not have asked if we hadn’t cuddled up on the couch and read the book together.
Older children and teens might look online for information about their illness, treatment, or upcoming procedures. Information online can range from helpful to wildly inaccurate. Mention this to your child and let him know that if he finds something concerning in his research that it’s worth discussing with his doctor.
Whether you use books, videos, tours, computer programs, 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. You can tell your child that hospitals are special places that help people who are hurt or sick.
Children also may form incorrect impressions or have scary fantasies about what can occur. They can conjure up genuine horrors, and you should try to replace those fearful imaginings with the truth.
Our children perceive things differently than we do. We’ve found it’s really important to ask them to explain to us what they think is coming. A lot of times we can dispel their fears. Before heart surgeries, we have asked David what he thinks is going to happen. Once he asked, “How do I know they’re not going to take my heart out?”
Be realistic. If you tell your child that a painful procedure won’t hurt, he won’t believe you the next time. Be truthful, and explain the procedure as well as you can. Encourage your child to ask the doctor questions, too.
If your baby must be hospitalized, she can’t ask questions or understand explanations. An infant’s whole world is eating, sleeping, being held, being sung to, and being nestled in her parent’s arms. These familiar comforts will help soothe your baby during medical procedures.
HELP WITH LONG-TERM HOSPITILIZATION
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.
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 do better when they have choices and when they are prepared.
“My son and I learned lots from other patients and parents about how to survive a hospital stay. We learned it was okay to wear shorts and T-shirts instead of hospital gowns. We learned parents can sleep on the floor if no cot is available. We learned to welcome all visitors, especially those bringing food. We learned to share our treats with hospital personnel––from the doctors to the cleaning staff. We learned that we could request a favorite nurse. We met friends and had incredible experiences that we will remember all our lives.”
Excerpt from Your Child in the Hospital: A Practical Guide for Parents, 2015 © by Nancy Keene and Rachel Prentice.
Nancy Keene, a well-known writer and advocate for hospitalized children, has written and co-authored twelve consumer health books on topics ranging from childhood illnesses to working with your doctor. Her work has appeared in many publications, including Reader’s Digest,Journal of the American Medical Association, Exceptional Parent, and Coping magazine. She served as chair of the patient advocacy committee of a consortium of 350 children’s hospitals and on a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) committee that reviewed medications given to ill children. Ms. Keene has been interviewed on National Public Radio (NPR), frequently speaks to professional and parent groups, and has participated in online support groups for parents of ill children since 1996.
Rachel Prentice is a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years in Washington State, New Mexico, and Rome, Italy, focusing on science, environment, and government issues.