Preparing Your Child for Hospital Experiences

How and when your child is prepared for medical experiences will depend on his/her age and how you think your child will react. The ages listed below are guidelines. These suggestions will help you prepare your child before or after a medical experience or procedure.

Infants and toddlers (birth – 3 years):

Infants and toddlers may react to changes in routine and after 8 months of age, may have difficulty separating from caregivers. Tell the staff how you think your infant will react.

Consider:

  • Comforting by rocking, holding, and talking gently.
  • Providing toys for distraction.
  • Keeping explanations for your toddler very simple.

Preschool Children (3 – 6 years):

Preschool children may believe that hospitalization is punishment and may not fully understand why the procedure or surgery is needed.

  • Talk to your child about the procedure 2-3 days prior to the operation.
  • Be honest. This will help your child to trust you and the medical staff. The truth is often less scary than what they are thinking.
  • Explain only those things that they will see and experience. Too much detail can be confusing. Use play and familiar objects to help your child understand his procedure or operation (toys, books). Explain what is going to happen, why it needs to be done, and how it may feel.
  • Ask your child “what do you think is going to happen?” This is a good way to find out what your child is thinking and gives you a chance to correct misunderstandings.

School-age Children (6 - 12 years):

School-age children have a basic understanding of how their body works. They need time to ask questions and talk about their feelings.

  • Let your child lead the conversation by asking simple questions and allowing him/her to tell you what he/she knows. This is a good way to find out what your child is thinking and gives you a chance to correct misunderstandings.
  • Prepare your child by telling him/her why it needs to be done, how it will be done, and how it may feel.
  • It is normal for children to feel angry or frightened. Encourage your child to express his or her feelings.
  • Do not offer choices that cannot be granted.

Adolescents (12 – 18 years):

Adolescents are more independent and can become more involved in their own medical care. They may ask for detailed explanations. Privacy is a concern for this age group.

  • Be honest with your adolescent. Your adolescent has a right to know about everything that will happen to him/her.
  • Encourage your adolescent to ask questions of you or the medical staff.
  • Your adolescent may prefer to speak to the medical staff alone.
  • Your adolescent may wish to bring written questions with him/her for the medical staff.
  • Reassure your adolescent that fear, anger, and tears are normal.

Reactions post-hospitalization:

Children may show changes in their behaviour after hospitalization. These may include:

  • sleep disturbances
  • eating disturbances
  • regression (bed wetting, thumb sucking)
  • separation anxiety
  • night time crying

These reactions are considered normal but it is still important to address your child’s concerns through play and conversation. If these behaviours persist and prevent your child’s participation in regular routines and activities consult your family physician.

The importance of play:

Play is an essential, natural part of childhood. Play is an important aspect of child life practice with infants, children and youth. For children in hospital or undergoing medical treatments, play facilitates:

  • healing
  • growth and development
  • coping
  • mastery/achievement
  • self expression/self discovery
  • creativity
  • learning

Play offers reassurance against fear and anxiety. When children are too sick or injured to play for themselves it can be a positive experience to have someone ‘play for them’.

Coping strategies:

Coping strategies can help a child deal better with medical procedures or pain. Children need an opportunity to select and practice a coping method. Learning and practicing these skills beforehand can increase your child’s comfort level. These can include:

  • sitting on a parent’s lap
  • choosing to turn away or watch the procedure
  • concentrating on a diversional activity (light up toys, book, electronic game, music)
  • crying (a natural response to stress)
  • thinking games
  • relaxation and gentle breathing: have children breathe with you
  • imagery: ask your child to think of a favourite place