Going to hospital can be challenging for children, parents and other family members, and you can’t always plan ahead. But if it’s possible for you to plan and prepare, it can help make your child’s hospital experience more positive.
Going to hospital: why planning helps
You can’t always plan for hospital visits, but if you do know when your child is going to hospital, planning can make a big difference to the experience for you and your child.
Planning for your child’s hospital stay:
- reduces anxiety, worry and stress for you and your child
- helps your child know what to expect when going to hospital
- involves your child and helps her feel more in control.
As part of your planning, you can think about how to talk with your child about hospital, what to do before you go and what to take with you.
If your child is going to a major children’s hospital, check out the hospital’s website. Most children’s hospitals have a lot of information about what to expect and how to plan your visit. Some even let you do a virtual tour, so you can see what the hospital looks like.
Your child going to hospital: preparing yourself
The first step in preparing your child for hospital is preparing yourself – getting all the information you need and working out what to tell your child.
You might need to ask doctors or health professionals questions, so you know what’s happening and can explain it to your child. It’s also good to find out about appointments and how long they’ll take, as well as where you need to go.
Take a pen and paper with you so you can write it all down.
Gathering information, talking with your child and helping your child feel more confident can also help you feel better about the situation.
Giving your child information about going to hospital
The second step in preparing your child is making sure your child has clear, honest and realistic information that he can understand.
Your child might ask questions like, ‘What will happen?’, ‘Why do I need this?’ or ‘Will it hurt?’ It’s common for children to ask the same questions over and over, because it takes them time to understand. Being patient and clear with your answers will help your child.
If you don’t know the answer to your child’s questions, just say so – but also tell your child that you’ll work together to find out. You and your child could write down some questions together to ask your health professional, or do some research online or at the library. This helps your child trust you and gives her some control over the situation, as you work together.
You might need to be ready to answer questions when you don’t expect them – for example, when you’re in the car, when your child is in the bath, or as your child is going to bed.
Checking your child’s understanding
The third step is checking that your child understands the facts about his illness and why he’s going to hospital.
For example, some children think that getting sick is their fault. It’s good to reassure your child that her sickness isn’t her fault. Brothers and sisters might think that they’ve somehow caused the illness, so reassuring them is important too.
If your child has special needs or is very anxious, it can be a challenge to prepare him for hospital. He still needs information, but you might need to think about when and how much you tell him.
It might help your child with special needs if you:
- use your child’s usual communication systems – for example, visual cards or photos – to explain
- ask your child’s school for help – for example, with developing Social Stories™ about going to hospital
- talk about your visit with a GP, paediatrician or clinical psychologist before you go to hospital.
If your child is very anxious about going to hospital, ask hospital staff for strategies to help. You could start by talking to the hospital’s play therapists. Some hospitals offer preadmission visits, which can give you and your child more information and help you get familiar with the hospital.
Packing for hospital
You can make your child’s hospital stay as comfortable as possible by packing all the items she’ll need for her stay. If you’re staying with your child in hospital, you’ll need some things to make yourself comfortable too.
Here are some ideas:
- favourite cuddly toy and/or blanket
- music/iPod/mobile phone and chargers
- photos or reminders of home.
Security can be a problem in public areas like hospitals, so consider leaving expensive jewellery and other valuable items at home.
Preparing for unexpected behaviour
Going to hospital can be scary and overwhelming for some children. It can also be boring and frustrating, because children have to stay in their rooms or beds. In this situation, it’s normal for children and teenagers to behave in some unexpected ways.
For example, younger children might express their anxiety or boredom by going back to ‘baby talk’.
Older children and teenagers might find it frustrating to have less privacy and to need more help from others. If your child is feeling frustrated or embarrassed, his feelings might even come out as anger, crankiness or impatience.
And if your child had problems with her behaviour before hospital, it’s more likely this will keep going when she’s in hospital.
There are a few ways you can handle your child’s behaviour and help your child cope with boredom:
- Plan some educational and entertainment activities for while your child is in hospital. You can find ideas in our article on managing a hospital stay.
- Set up ways for your child to keep in contact with family, friends and schoolmates. You could do this by asking people to visit at certain times, letting your child use email or social media to keep in touch, or setting up video calls using an iPad, phone or laptop webcam.
- Try to name the emotions your child is going through, and let him know you understand how he feels. For example, ‘I wonder whether it’s frustrating to have no privacy in here. I’d find that really frustrating too’.
- Talk about your child’s behaviour with the health care team or a clinical psychologist. This can be a good idea if you’re having trouble managing your child’s behaviour yourself.
There are just suggestions to get you started. You know your child better than anyone, so you’ll know what things are likely to help her feel settled and relaxed.