6 Tips to Prepare for a Child’s Hospital Stay

Knowledge and preparation can help ease their anxiety — and yours

Child's hospital stay

Parents are likely to be more anxious about a child’s surgery than their own. Children pick up on that anxiety and may become fearful themselves. Knowledge and preparation are the keys to relieving anxiety all around.

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Follow these tips from Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital experts to make your family’s hospital experience the best it can be:

1. Be honest. Explain to your child in simple words why he or she is going to the hospital. Shielding your child from the truth by saying “We’re just going to the hospital to see the doctor” will backfire. Your child may wake up angry with you after surgery. Honesty will help your child trust you and the healthcare team. “Children see parents as their protectors and wonder ‘why did they lie to me?’” says Child Life Manager Shannon Sonnhalter, CCLS. Preserve their trust. If you don’t have the answers, ask the healthcare team.

2. Take a tour if your hospital offers one. Children do better with surgery and anesthesia when they are well-prepared. Preadmission tours allow children, parents, siblings and other family members to visit the pre-op and post-op areas and sometimes the operating room. You and your child can see everything firsthand, ask questions, meet friendly staff, see an anesthesia mask. “We tell children what they’ll see, hear, taste and smell,” says Ms. Sonnhalter. “We let them know they’ll be breathing in special air through the mask that will help them go to sleep.” As a parent, you need to know that children often wake up crying, hungry, thirsty, confused or even combative after surgery. But you’ll learn that your healthcare team will always do something to make them feel better.

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3. Correct misperceptions. Discover what your child is thinking and feeling about the hospital. Be available to your child if he or she asks questions, or expresses concerns or fears. Children sometimes worry that they’ll die in the hospital if that’s what happened to one of their grandparents. Teens imagine scenarios they’ve seen on TV. “We tell them that’s drama, and real hospitals aren’t run like that,” says Ms. Sonnhalter. When explaining things to children, it’s important to choose words thoughtfully, she adds: “We avoid saying things like, ‘we’ll put you to sleep,’ because a lot of the children have dogs or other pets that have been ‘put to sleep.’”

4. Let kids be kids. Children need more than medicine to get well. They need hugs, laughter and especially play. “Play normalizes their life; it’s what kids do,” says Ms. Sonnhalter. Playing with toy medical kits gives children a sense of control in the hospital, where that control is often taken away. Children can give their teddy bear, parents or nurses a shot. “We watch what kids are doing, and if a child gives an injection in the head, we clear up any misconceptions so the child understands what will happen to them during their stay,” she adds.

5. Supply the comforts of home. In the hospital, babies will be reassured by familiar blankets, pacifiers, bottles and nipples. “Sometimes parents leave a blanket or T-shirt that smells like them in a baby’s hospital bed,” says Ms. Sonnhalter. Older children appreciate having their stuffed animals, DVDs, books, iPod® and videogames. “We do everything to make the family comfortable, knowing they’re never going to be entirely comfortable until their child is back in their arms,” she adds.

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6. Minimize separation anxiety. See if your hospital will allow you to stay in the operating room until your child falls asleep. Some children’s hospitals permit this based on the case and your child’s medical history and age. Your anesthesiologist may also give a medication to calm your child prior to surgery. Then, if you’re in recovery when your child wakes up, it will look like you’ve never left. “It’s important to handle separation well, particularly in the younger child,” says pediatric anesthesiologist Julie Niezgoda, MD. If not, a child could regress from previously attained milestones such as being potty-trained and start to wet the bed again.