As a parent, you’ve come to expect the unexpected, whether it’s as simple as a spilled glass of milk at dinner or worse — finding doggy doo-doo on your child’s shoe. But what about when a little accident becomes something bigger? What if you suddenly find yourself in the emergency room with your child? Or what if your child has been sick and just isn’t getting better, and your pediatrician thinks your child may need surgery, a procedure, or even an overnight hospital stay?
Choose a hospital that specializes in children
How do you assure your child when you yourself don’t know what will happen next? Choosing a children’s hospital or a hospital with a pediatric unit is smart, because you’re likely to find a certified child life specialist there who’s trained to work with children of all ages and help your child’s hospital visit seem more like child’s play.
Find out if your hospital has a child life specialist
When a child is faced with a difficult or unexpected experience such as chronic illness or hospitalization, their ability to cope may be overwhelmed. Child life specialists are trained to understand the perspective of a child and the developmental stages of children and teens of all ages — from as young as infants all the way up to age 17. They usually have a master’s degree and a professional certification.
“Children quickly learn I’m the fun person at the hospital,” says child life specialist Ashley Starliper, MS, CCLS, who works in the Emergency Department at Riverton Hospital in Riverton, UT. “I walk in with things to help them feel more comfortable, like stuffed animals or blankets and fun things like toys and games.”
How child life specialists help alleviate children’s fears
Child life specialists begin by building rapport with young patients by using age-appropriate language. They offer emotional support and understanding and coping strategies, not only for children, but also for their parents and siblings. They may be available to help children who come to the emergency department, are having outpatient surgery, or who end up staying overnight in the children’s unit.
Child life specialists understand children learn through the five senses, so they teach what’s going to happen by letting them see and touch the type of medical equipment that will be used like syringes, tubing, masks, and sponges.
“We use buddy dolls to demonstrate exactly how an IV line will be put into their arm, for example,” says Ashley. “We explain medical procedures in terms they understand, such as comparing an IV line to a straw that helps their bodies receive a drink and get medicine.”
The goal is to make a child’s time in the hospital feel as comfortable as possible. Children with conditions that require frequent hospital visits can feel like they’re missing out on the fun at home and with friends.
Child life specialists use toys, games, books, music, or videos to teach and distract
Some things specialists have in their bag of tricks to help explain medical procedures to children and keep them distracted and entertained include:
- Dolls to explain procedures
- Comfort items: blankets, stuffed animals, teddy bears, etc.
- Medical kits with real medical equipment are used to teach “medical play,” which is led by the child’s natural curiosity
- Books to explain about going to the hospital and what will happen
- Music, singing, or soothing sounds like a rain stick or white noise can help calm babies
- Games or tablet computers with games or videos to keep them occupied
- Praise and prizes are given for cooperating with tasks
- Specially trained pet therapy animals are used at many hospitals with pediatric units. If your child likes animals, find out if they’re available.
How to prepare your child for their hospital stay
- Be honest about where they’re going
- Give information that’s age appropriate
- Use softer language. Say, “You’ll feel a quick pinch,” instead of “You’ll get a shot.”
- Visit the hospital ahead of time if possible before outpatient surgery. Ask for materials that can be reviewed at home.
- If they’ve been to the hospital before and are worried, ask “What’s the hardest part for you and how could we make it easier?”