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When Your Child Goes to The Hospital

Social Services

By Dr. Stuart Crisp, Pediatrician

In recent years healthcare professionals and parents have come to understand that a child's life is turned upside down when they go into hospital. So, since there's a one in two chance your child will have to stay in a hospital at some stage, we’ve outlined some tips to help the child, siblings and you, the parents.   You can help your child during the stay simply by being there. Make sure your child feels they're not alone: mom, dad, a grandparent, other relative or a close friend should be with them.

Understanding its effect on children
Only 20 years ago, people knew very little about how much a hospital stay could affect a child's development and wellbeing. Usually, children were alone during their stay. At one stage, parents were even told that it would be better if they didn't come to visit their child, but small children are suddenly separated from their parents, they react strongly. They cry and look for their mother and father.

Later, when the longed-for parents have still not returned, the children became passive and apathetic. This behavior used to be interpreted as a sign that a child had accepted the situation. They were considered 'easy' children by the staff. But these children were being harmed by their experience. They felt their parents had let them down. In extreme cases, they had a hard time committing themselves emotionally to other people as adults.

Today, we have come to understand these psychological mechanisms better. A parent will normally stay with their child in hospital, to make the difficult experience as normal as possible.

What might upset a child in hospital?

  • Eating new, unfamiliar food.
  • New smells.
  • Strange sounds.
  • Different routines.
  • Lots of new, strange people suddenly coming into his or her life.

How can parents help make a child's hospital stay less traumatic?
There are a number of things you can do to help your child adjust to a stay in hospital.

Before admission
Prepare your child before going to the hospital. Get some children's books on the subject and read them to your child. If your child goes to nursery or school, find out whether it's possible for some of the children to visit. 

Arrange a pre-admission visit the hospital.  Many hospitals arrange visiting days for children. Parents and children get a guided tour and are told what it's like to stay in a hospital. They may also be allowed to touch some of the instruments.

Children often feel safer and more in control, if they have been to a place before.

Good advice
Buy a toy stethoscope and play 'going to the hospital' with the child. 

Know that even though your child puts up with a doctor's examination at home, he or she might react differently at the hospital.

If the child has a toy, or book or an item of clothing they really love, make sure they have that in hospital with them.

Whether your child is suddenly taken to the hospital, or his or her stay is pre-planned, you should prepare yourself by reading about the subject. 

If that is not possible, prepare yourself by thinking through different situations that might arise. This will make you feel more in control.  Remember that your child’s hospital stay can be a shock to you, as well as your child.

In hospital
Parents should spend as much time as they want with their child in hospital and fortunately, today, it's possible to stay with your child 24 hours a day. 

If they don't offer, ask the hospital staff to prepare your child for what's going to happen. Children feel a lot safer, when things are explained to them.

Ask the staff to show your child some of the instruments. That will make them familiar objects, instead of just scary ones, and your child will feel a little more in control.

Good advice
Don't expect your child to 'behave' when they go into hospital, and never yell at him or her.  Often your child isn't in control of his or her own reactions. Their anger or sadness may be because of fear or pain. 

Play with your child at the hospital. Playing will help them cope with all the strange and unpleasant things that may be going on.

Fairytales and stories may also help to make them better, but select them carefully. The good guys have to win!

Games can also provide a nice break from the serious stuff for you and your child. For an older child, renting a video or bringing in some computer games might be a good idea because it will give your child something to do. But don't leave your child alone with the TV or the computer – watch a video or play a game together.

How can a child react to a hospital stay?
Each child reacts differently to being in the hospital. Some children feel safe and secure, as long as their parents are there, while others react badly to a stay in a hospital. 

A child may:

    • suffer nightmares
    • cry a lot
    • throw tantrums
    • refuse to eat
    • become withdrawn, refusing to have anything to do with the adults
    • return to earlier stages of their development and start sucking their thumb or bedwetting. 

Crying and tantrums
If your child cries, let them express their fear. Stay with your child. Tell them you understand and that you are not going to leave. Hold your child in your arms or hold his or her hand. Touch is soothing. 

If your child has a temper tantrum, try to stay calm, even though it will be hard. Talk quietly to your child. Cuddle them, if possible.

It is the fear of the unknown that makes your child react like this. Never tell your child off, but try to calm them down instead.  

Talk to your child as much as possible, and explain what is going on.  Ask the hospital staff to explain what they are going to do to your child – before they do it.

It's important to let your child know the truth. If you do, they will know they can trust you. It is not a good idea to tell your child that something is not going to hurt, if it is.

Thumb sucking and bedwetting
If a child sucks their thumb or wets the bed, it's because they are scared - this is perfectly natural. 

Don't tell your child off or tell them they're too big to be wetting the bed. That will just create more anxiety. Your child needs security, closeness and the certainty that he or she is not going to be left alone.

Stay close to your child at all times so they feel safe. The closeness, along with talking and explaining things, will create a feeling of security. Let them know that there is at least one stable and predictable element in his or her life.

If you have to leave the hospital, tell your child when you will be back. Don't be late!

If your child becomes withdrawn
If your child becomes withdrawn, it's because they're so frightened they have almost lost confidence in other people. It's important that they experience a lot of positive contact. 

Talk to them, cuddle them, sing to them, tickle them and play with them. Do anything you can think of that might help them come out of their shell.

If you don't succeed, discuss the problem with the hospital staff.

If your child needs a long stay in hospital and has problems adjusting to this, a child psychologist may be able to give helpful advice. This can be arranged by the medical or nursing staff.

Other members of the family may also react badly to their brother or sister suddenly disappearing then reappearing. 

Talk to your child’s siblings and explain to them what is happening or what is going to happen.  If you are taking a tour of the hospital, take the sibling along, too. 

Don't be surprised if a sibling reacts to the stay in similar ways as the child, or worse.

They may have tantrums or wet the bed.

They may become jealous of the attention their sibling receives.

They, too, need lots of love and assurance about what's going on and extra patience after the hospital stay because they get used to having their sibling home.  

After a hospital stay
A lot of children may still have nightmares and be a little naughtier than usual, even for a while after returning home. That is a natural reaction. 

If your child experiences safety, love and closeness in their everyday life, these things will ebb away. But it might take a couple of weeks.