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.

Planning for your child’s hospital stay:

  • reduces anxiety, worry and stress for you and your child
  • helps your child know what to expect
  • 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, when and how to tell your child.

You might need to ask doctors or health professionals questions, so you know what’s happening and can explain things 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.

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.

If your child is younger than six years old, you can tell her about going to hospital a couple of days beforehand. If she’s more than six years old, you can tell her a week or two beforehand. This gives your child time to prepare and ask questions.

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 him some control over the situation.

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 of hospital

The third step is checking that your child understands the facts about her illness and why she’s going to hospital.

For example, some children think that getting sick is their fault. It’s good to reassure your child that his sickness isn’t his fault. Brothers and sisters might think that they’ve somehow caused the illness, so reassuring them is important too.

If your child has additional needs, it can be a challenge to prepare her for hospital. It might help your child with additional needs if you:

  • use your child’s usual communication systems to explain – for example, visual cards or photos
  • ask your child’s school for help – for example, with developing Social Stories™ about going to hospital
  • talk about your visit with a GPpaediatrician or clinical psychologist before you go to hospital.

If your child is very anxious about going to hospital, ask hospital staff for help. Your hospital might have a child life therapist you could talk to. Some hospitals offer preadmission visits and online resources to 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 he’ll need for his stay. If you’re staying with your child in hospital, you’ll need some things to make yourself comfortable too.

Here are some ideas:

  • pyjamas
  • toiletries
  • medications
  • favourite cuddly toy or blanket
  • some small toys or games
  • music, tablet, phone or gaming device 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 in hospital

Going to hospital can be overwhelming, boring and frustrating for children. 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. Their feelings might 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.

Here are some ideas for handling your child’s behaviour and helping your child cope with being in hospital:

  • 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, letting your child use email or social media to keep in touch, or setting up video calls.
  • 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’.
  • Give your child some control over decisions that affect her. For example, if your child needs her blood pressure taken, let her choose which arm to use.
  • 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.