Child Life Corner: Preparing a Child for Hospitalization
As a certified child life specialist in the PICU (pediatric intensive care unit) at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, I’m acutely aware of how confusing and stressful medical experiences can be for children and their families. My name is Heather Troyer and for the past 15 years, I have worked to help families more smoothly navigate through this experience.
Why do we do what we do? When children are given the opportunity to cope successfully they feel more in control and reassured about their upcoming hospital and medical procedures. Children and teens responses to hospitalization will differ depending on their age, personality, development, and past medical experiences. Here are some strategies we use to help you prepare your child for the hospital:
Infants to age 2
Since infants and toddlers have limited understanding and use of language they can be more difficult to prepare. New faces and surroundings can create fear. So, bringing a stuffed animal, favorite blanket, pacifier, or toy can provide a sense of comfort and familiarization. Your presence is the most critical part at this stage of development.
Children ages 2-6
Children want to have more freedom at this age. They also have a vivid imagination which can prompt nightmares. Hospital stays can temporarily take away freedom, control, and choices so it’s important to prepare children this age three days before hospitalization. A great way to prepare younger children? Role playing. Allow them to be the doctor or nurse. “Let’s take your stuffed animal’s temperature, do you think they have a fever?,” or “how do you think this blood pressure cuff goes on your dolls’ arm, do you think it will hurt when it squeezes?” This type of dialogue allows the child to feel more in control. Another great way to prepare is by reading books and talking about their pictures.
Children ages 6-12
In this stage, kids are becoming more self-reliant and want to feel included. They are able to understand the reason for their hospital stay. You can prepare your child a week before by talking openly about the hospital. This will allow them time to express any worries and ask questions. Be aware that they may also overhear bits of information during this time which can lead to misconceptions or create fear. One way to prevent problems: Have your child break the news about their upcoming hospital stay to a friend or relative in front of you to better understand their interpretation of the situation. This will allow you to better identify and correct any misconceptions they may have. It is also important to inform your child’s school beforehand and collect any work so your child does not fall behind during their hospitalization.
Teens are very sensitive about their body image and their privacy. They are also very connected with their peers and the outside world. Due to this, it is important to include your teen in as many (appropriate) conversations as you can with their medical team and give them frequent opportunities to discuss concerns related to the hospital or medical procedures. It is also important to encourage autonomy by allowing teens to interface with peers on social media and stay up to date on their school work while in the hospital, so they continue to feel supported and connected to their peers and world.
Want to learn more? Certified Child Life Specialists work on every inpatient unit at Riley as well as in some outpatient areas. Please contact Childliferiley@IUHealth.org if you have specific questions. You can also visit the Child Life Zone, located on the first floor of Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. This facility is open Monday-Friday 10am-7:30pm for inpatients, outpatients, siblings and family members.
--By Heather Troyer, CCLS
Certified Child Life Specialist
Child Life and Creative Arts Therapies