Going to the hospital can be a frightening, anxious time for kids and stressful for parents and families. Here are ideas and information to help you and your child before, during and after a hospital visit.
Before you leave for the hospital, you should explain to your child where they will be going, and why.
- Set the stage
Tell your child honestly and truthfully that they’ll be going to the hospital for an operation, test, or procedure, and let them know that you feel this is the right thing to do. Use simple, age-appropriate words they can understand. Children can usually sense how a parent feels about a hospitalisation or a procedure. If your child is under six years of age, tell them a few days beforehand. You can tell older children a week or two beforehand, so that they have time to think of any questions or issues that might be relevant to them. Write questions down as a family so that you can ask them to the nurse or doctor.
- Get to know the hospital
Read books or watch a story with younger children about going to hospital; for older children you can find interesting information on the internet to explore. Familiarise your child with the hospital through a visit or look at a virtual tour and photographs on the hospital’s website. Depending on the age of your child, give them plenty of time for ‘hospital play’. You can get them to do things like bandaging a teddy, listening to family members’ heartbeats, or practising taking medicine.
- Give Reassurance
Reassure your child that you, a parent or a family member will be coming with and staying through the whole hospital visit. Usually, you will be able to stay with your child until they are asleep (have an anaesthetic) before their surgery.
- Pack some favourite things
Plan with your child in organizing and packing a few things they would like to take to hospital e.g. new pajamas and toiletries. Encourage your child to bring along their favourite possessions, like a stuffed animal, pillow, or books.
At the hospital
After arriving at the hospital, help keep your child calm and relaxed before, during, and after tests and treatments. In general, it’s important to inform children what they’re about to experience.
- Avoid surprises
Let your child know in advance if a test or procedure is about to happen, even if it’s something uncomfortable, like a needle. It’ll give them a feeling of trust. Use honest and simple explanations that fit your child’s age and level of understanding and ask them questions to make sure they understand what you’ve said.
- Explain what’s happening
Tell your child how they might feel before, during, and after a procedure or test. For example, you may want to explain that they won’t hear, see, or feel anything during an operation, because the doctor will give them a special sleep medicine called aneasthesia beforehand. Try not to make promises you can’t keep. Don’t tell your child that nothing will hurt or that there won’t be any blood tests, for instance.
- Encourage questions
Encourage your child to ask you and the doctors and nurses a lot of questions. If your child is uneasy about it, you can ask on their behalf.
- Take breaks and look after yourself too
This will help you to cope better and provide support and care for your child. Remember, this can also be a scary and tiring experience for a parent.
- Use reassuring language
Try to choose words that are neutral when describing procedures and tests to your child. For example, you might say, ”The nurse will ’slide‘ a needle into your arm, “rather than ”’stick‘ or ’poke‘ a needle into your arm.“
A visit to hospital is a big event in a child’s life, even if it is only for a day procedure. Allow plenty of time for readjustment when your child returns home again. NEVER threaten your child with a return to hospital as a punishment for behaviours you do not like.
- Expect “abnormal” behaviour
It is not unusual for a child to show some behaviours that are different to normal when they leave hospital. For example, they might be clingy, attention seeking or have ’babyish‘ behaviours, (like sucking their thumb) which they had previously grown out of.
- Stick to your usual routines
Give them some time, patience and understanding. Your child will soon return to their normal self. Siblings may also be clingy or show attention-seeking behaviours. It has been different for them too, so allow time for their questions and also try to involve them in events. Again, allow your child plenty of time to ’play‘ being in hospital. They have more information and experience now, and need to play out these experiences to make sense of and cope with them.
Key points to remember
- It is important to give children information simply and truthfully, in words they understand.
- They need to be told that they will be going to hospital and what they may expect to happen there.
- A prepared child will find it easier to cope with their hospital experience.