It’s 8 p.m. Your son slips in the bath and splits his chin open. You instantly know he’s headed for the ER and stitches instead of bed.
Or, maybe you find out your daughter needs a CT scan or surgery in a few weeks.
Regardless of the circumstances, there are a lot of things you can do to make a hospital visit or procedure less scary for your little patient.
This is easier said than done, but dig deep; otherwise, your anxiety can fuel your child’s. “Children look to their parents for how to react,” says Jennifer Seiler, a senior Certified Child Life Specialist at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, one of the few community hospitals offering Child Life services, which help normalize the hospital experience for kids and families.
Of course, it’s OK if you’re scared or even cry in front of your child, but try to use your usual voice and comfort your kid as you normally would, says Laura Scott, M.D., director of pediatric in-patient and emergency medicine at GBMC.
Explain what’s happening and set expectations
Kids do best when kept in the loop, so be honest. “Make sure the child knows the hospital is a safe place,” Seiler says. “Say something like, ‘It’s the best place to go to make sure your cut gets fixed because they have special doctors and nurses who help kids like you all the time.’” It’s also important to acknowledge their fear and reassure them, Scott adds. “Tell them, ‘It’s OK to be scared, but I’ll be with you.’”
She also recommends explaining what to expect. “Talk about how there will be a lot of people around and how it may be noisy or busy or a lot of waiting,” Scott says. But also mention the positive: Frame it as an adventure and mention the perks, such as a chance to watch cartoons or have a special treat afterward.
Prepare a few days ahead if possible
For a planned procedure, start talking to a toddler or preschooler only about two to three days before. For older kids, you can start sooner. If the hospital has a Certified Child Life Program, call and ask for recommended activities, toys, books or shows that involve characters who go to the hospital — or for more procedure-specific advice.
If your child has a sensory processing disorder or is on the Autism spectrum, prep the care team no matter what brings you to the hospital. At GBMC, which uses a program called Sensational Kids, a nurse or a Child Life Specialist provides a worksheet that explains your child’s triggers, likes, dislikes and other information that helps the team give individualized care.
“I want to know what makes your child feel worse so that I don’t accidentally do one of those things,” Scott says.
Rely on toys, screens and snacks
Seiler prefers the term “alternative focus” rather than distraction. “We don’t want to trick kids, but rather give them a choice to focus on something else,” she says. And when it comes to keeping kids’ focus, you can’t beat a tablet, Scott adds. So if you have time to grab a few things, put that near the top of the list.
Other items: Any toy or stuffed animal your child uses for comfort or loves playing with — and snacks. “Once you’re here, it might be hard to find food your child likes,” Scott says. Parents should always check with the physician first to confirm it is all right to give their child snacks.
If you come empty-handed, though, don’t sweat it — especially if the hospital has a Child Life department; Seiler’s bag of tricks is big and full. She says the light-up and cause-and-effect toys work well for younger kids, while play medical kits can help them understand why they’re there. “With older kids, they can play with real medical equipment (while supervised), and we have what’s called a blank cloth doll, so anything that will happen to the child, like getting an IV, we can show on the doll first.”
Bubbles also pull double-duty to occupy a child and teach calming breathing. “If they get stressed later, we can say, ‘Remember how you breathe when you blow bubbles?’” Seiler says. “Play dough,” meanwhile, offers something to fidget with to relieve tension.
Speak up for and comfort your child
It’s easy to feel scared, unsure of your role or intimidated by unfamiliar surroundings, but you know your child best and what works to keep him or her calm. “Parents should feel empowered to say something like, ‘Can I lie with him?’” Scott says. “Don’t let being in the emergency department stop you from doing whatever you think might help comfort your child.”
Certified Child Life Specialists not only serve as intermediaries with the medical team, but also train staff in best practices, like alternatives to wrapping kids in restraints. “The scariest position for a kid is flat on the bed wrapped up,” Seiler says. So now, at GBMC, the staff suggests “positions of comfort” when possible, which usually has the child sitting on a parent, who holds their arms if needed.
“I wish more parents would speak up,” Seiler says. That could mean asking to turn off fluorescent overhead lights — especially useful for kids with sensory disorders — to limit the number of people around, to request a quieter room, or whatever your child needs.
Know your limits
Both Seiler and Scott say it’s crucial that while comforting your child, you take care of yourself. “If you’re frustrated and stressed, it’s OK to step away,” Scott says. “Or, let the care team know if you don’t want to talk about something in front of your child.”
Seiler notes that a lot of people can’t handle seeing blood or their child in distress. In that case, work with the team on where you can sit so your child can still hear your voice or who can stay if you can’t. “You may want to be there, but think about how much more traumatizing the experience would be for your child if you passed out,” she says.
This webpage is for informational purposes only and not intended as medical advice or a substitute for a consultation with a professional healthcare provider.