Hospital stays can be stressful for everyone. However, when it’s your child, it can add a whole other layer of uncertainty and fear.
We never expect our children to spend time in the hospital. We picture our children out running, skipping and playing, not in a hospital bed.
This experience can certainly be jarring for you, but especially for your child who may not totally understand everything that is going on.
“Children often watch their parents’ reactions as they try to figure out how to respond to this new situation,” said Sue Eaton, MSW, a child life specialist and associate director of child life at Banner Health in Mesa, AZ. “Staying calm, honest and present for your child demonstrates a great role model for them that life’s uncertainties can indeed be managed.”
During this time, you can play an active role in your child’s treatment and care while in the hospital. Here are some tips to keep in mind to help your whole family cope during your child’s hospital stay.
5 Ways to help your child while in the hospital
1. Bring comforts from home
If you’re anticipating a long stay, bring parts of your child’s bedroom at home to the hospital. A few homey touches may help your child relax and feel more comfortable. Think a beloved stuffed animal, toys and books, favorite blanket or loveys and photos of family and friends. Favorite activities like coloring books, sketch pads and card games are helpful too.
Many hospitals provide personal items, such as toiletries, but you may want to consider packing these things as well:
- Comfortable pajamas and clothes for you and your child that can be layered for warmth
- Eyewear, such as contact lenses and glasses
- A hairbrush and favorite hair accessories
- Slippers or comfortable shoes with rubber soles
- Electronics, such as a tablet, iPad, phone and chargers (bring long cords!)
- An eye mask and earplugs for sleeping
Pack as lightly as possible, focusing only on the items you truly need based on how long your child is expected to be in the hospital.
2. Be prepared to stay overnight
Children, especially young children, will probably feel afraid without you by their side. Be present with your child as much as you can so they don’t feel lonely or scared.
Many hospitals allow a parent or guardian to stay close, even sleep in the room if desired. Most inpatient pediatric rooms are private and some can accommodate sleeping space for an adult.
If you’re not able to stay, ask another trusted caregiver or family member your child is comfortable with to stay the night. Hospital staff are also there to watch over your child.
“If your child has to be left alone, your child’s nurse and staff will watch over them,” Eaton said. “Before you leave, it’s helpful to share information with the nurse about your child, such as any fears, likes and dislikes and what works best to comfort them.”
3. Take advantage of the child life program
Play and interaction with other children can be a vital part of your child’s healing process. Your hospital’s child life program is a proven program that is offered at no cost to you and your family.
“Child life specialists can help explain the care process, provide emotional support and even play with your child,” Eaton said. “They even support the entire family by answering questions, interacting with siblings and coaching parents on how to comfort their child.”
Child life specialists can specifically:
- Ease your child’s fear and anxiety through therapeutic and recreational activities
- Encourage understanding and cooperation with tests and medical procedures in a language your child understands
- Engage children and families in special events and entertainment
- Consider the needs of siblings or other children who may be affected by your child’s illness or trauma
- Support families confronting grief and bereavement issues
4. Ask for help
Don’t hesitate to ask for help or support from your child’s health care team or family and friends.
“Communicate with the health care team so they are aware of where your challenges lie,” Eaton said. “They may be aware of helpful resources such as support groups or counseling services.”
When it comes to hands-on support from family and friends, make your requests as specific as possible. It may help to write down what you need.
“While you’re your child’s support system, it’s important to have your own support system too,” Eaton said. “Many times, people want to help but don’t know how. If you need a babysitter or meals, don’t be afraid to let them know specifically what you need and how they can help.”
5. Be an active participant in your child’s care
You are an important part of your child’s health care team. You’re the best person to interpret your child’s needs and wants as well as monitor improvements or spot anything unusual. Your input is vital, and your child’s health care team wants you to be engaged.
“To provide patient- and family-centered care, health care professionals need information from children and families,” Eaton said. “This exchange of information lays the foundation for next steps, especially when a child is too young to speak for themselves. Parents are encouraged to ask questions and speak up.”
If you’re unsure about a medical term or procedure, ask for the staff to clarify its meaning. If treatment plans are discussed, ask about the risks and benefits and potential other options.
One way to best interact with your child’s care team is to be present for what is known as rounding. This is when they meet to discuss yesterday’s care and the plan for today. This typically happens in the morning but ask your child’s nurse when the team plans to meet and if you can be included in that conversation.
No hospital stay is ever easy, especially for a child, but you can help make it a more positive experience. Modeling good communication, care and support can help your child cope with fears and make their hospital stay a more pleasant experience.
- How to Help Your Child Cope With Stress
- Talking to Children When a Sibling Has Cancer
- Watch for These Key Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue
- Sickle Cell Disease: Everything You Should Know as Parents