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Preparing your child for the hospital

Going to the hospital can be a stressful time for your child and your whole family. As parents, you know your child best and are the most qualified to prepare him or her for the hospital. Being well prepared will make it easier for the whole family. This information will help your child have a positive hospital experience.

How to prepare yourself

It's normal for you to feel anxious about having your child in the hospital. It's also normal for your child to notice your anxiety — it can make him more frightened. Even infants can sense their parents' anxiety and become irritable.

You're the best person to help your child during his hospital visit, so it's important for you to be relaxed. Share your feelings with a family member or a friend, become informed about the hospitalization, and prepare yourself for it. Taking care of yourself and staying calm will help your child stay calm.

Get answers to all your medical questions

Knowing what may happen in the hospital helps you feel more comfortable and in control. Write down all the questions you have, including any your child has but you can't answer. Go through the list with your child's doctor and nurse until you're comfortable with the answers.

Plan ahead for the hospital visit

Planning ahead for the changes in your family's routine will help you be less anxious while your child is in the hospital. Catch up on your bills, stock up on groceries, and cook and freeze meals ahead of time in case the hospital stay is extended. Ask family members and friends to help out.

What children fear

At the hospital, your child will meet a lot of people and be exposed to a new environment filled with unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells. He wonders and worries about what is going to happen, if it will hurt, and if you will stay with him.

While hospitalized, your child's daily home routines of eating, sleeping, and playing are disrupted. This makes a stay in the hospital very frightening.

Children under five are most concerned with being separated from their parents and being abandoned in a strange environment. School age children worry about their bodies not working right and not being like the other kids. They don't understand why things that hurt (like having a shot) can help them get well. Some children think that going to the hospital is a punishment for doing something bad. They may not understand why what is wrong can't be fixed at home or the doctor's office. Teenagers have different concerns, such as lack of privacy, loss of control, and fear of looking different or disfigured.

How parents can help
  • Take a hospital tour — The Pediatric Unit offers individual and group hospital tours to familiarize children (and their parents) with the hospital environment. Call the Pediatric Clinical Nurse Specialist (434-8639) to arrange a hospital tour. Younger children can participate in "medical play" where they can see and touch real equipment they'll see in the hospital.
  • Talk about it — Talk to your child and family about going to the hospital. For a young child, it's best to talk about the hospital stay only a few days ahead of time. Older children may need more time to think about issues. Reading books about hospitals can help. (Your library and local bookstore carry books and coloring books about going to the hospital.) Even if your child is young, talking about the pictures can help. Tell your child that the doctors and nurses work to make her better. Reassure her that she'll come home as soon as she is well.
  • Play with your child — Play with your child using toy medical kits. As he explores medical activities with a doll or stuffed animal, talk about what he's doing and feeling. This will help you find out what kinds of misconceptions he has, and it will give you an opportunity to clear them up.
  • Always tell the truth — Always be honest. Your child will lose trust if you don't tell the truth. Even if it seems hard, always tell him if something is going to hurt. Explain that even if something hurts or is uncomfortable, it will help him get better.
  • Stay with your child — Being separated from you during this stressful time is hard for your child. We encourage you or a family member to stay with your child as much as possible. We provide sleeping accommodations in your child's room during his stay. If there are times when you have to leave your child, always tell your child when and where you have to go and when you will be back. Never try to slip away unnoticed. If you can't be back when promised, call to let him and the staff know. Photos of your family can help your child, or leave a special object of yours with child.
  • Reassure your child — Reassure your child that he is not in the hospital because he did something wrong. Explain to him that he is in the hospital to get better so he can go home again. Reassure him that the hospital staff are not there to hurt him.
  • Bring familiar items from home — Bring in favorite toys, blankets, music tapes, and books from home to give your child something to play with that reminds her of home. Always clearly label anything you bring in from home with your child's last name. Please do not bring in latex (rubber) balloons for your child. This type of balloon can be a choking hazard for your child and other hospitalized children — foil (mylar) balloons are fine. Your child may bring her favorite pajamas.
  • Get involved — You're the best person to care for, comfort, and speak for your child. Talk with the nurses about how you can take part in his care. You may be able to feed him, give him baths, or change his bandages.
  • It's okay to cry — It's normal for children to cry when something hurts. Reassure your child that she does not have to "be brave" or be "a big girl." Talk with your child about different ways she can cope with uncomfortable things. For example, you can say, "Do you want to look the other way and hold my hand?" or "Let's count to ten." Always reassure your child that she did a good job.
  • Hold your child —- Hold and talk to your baby as much as possible during his hospital visit. If your child has an IV (intravenous line) or many tubes, the nurse will help you so you can hold your baby comfortably and safety.
Behavior changes

Children may have changes in their behavior before, during, and after a hospital stay. Many act younger than their age or may regress in behavior such as bed wetting or wanting a bottle again. Others don't want to eat, are whiny, or want you to hold them all the time. These are normal reactions and usually go away with time. Letting your child express his feeling through play, reading books about hospitals and talking about the hospital experience may help.

While in the hospital and later at home, it's often easy to let your child do things that he would not normally be allowed to do. Children need consistent rules so they know what to expect. Talk with your nurse to figure out the best way to continue to set rules both in and out of the hospital.

A final note

Although a hospital stay can be difficult, it can also be a growing time for your family. Your experience can also help others. Please write the hospital when you get home and tell us what went well and what we could do better.

Reference: Association for the Care of Children’s Health 

From the Parent/Patient Education Series
Holmes Regional Medical Center Pediatric Services

Peds: Pt Ed 1. Reviewed 4/98, 4/99, 6/00.