How to prepare for your kid's first hospital visit

Whether it's a routine procedure or you're gearing up for a more prolonged stay, here's how to make your child's first hospital experience a positive one.

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Whatever the reason for your visit, a trip to the hospital can be anxiety-inducing for parents and kids alike. In fact, some parents choose not to tell their children too much, for fear of frightening them, but it’s actually best to start the discussion early, says Christine Chambers, a paediatric psychologist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. “Research shows that preparing kids decreases their anxiety and fear, and increases their cooperativeness,” she says. “And just the act of preparing your child will help you feel more prepared, too.” The key, Chambers says, is to come up with a plan that will make things easier for everyone involved, right from the start.

When you find out you’re going to the hospital

Ask questions
Doctor with mom and child at the hospitalAsk Dr. Dina: When should I take my child to the ER?As soon as you discover your child is going to the hospital, you’ll likely feel anxious or stressed. The solution? “Ask questions of your medical team so you can plan ahead,” says Leigh Banfield, a child life specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa (CHEO) who helps families cope with the mental and emotional stress of a hospital visit. There’s no guarantee you’ll get face time with your surgeon or anesthetist ahead of time, but will likely have an opportunity to speak with a doctor or nurse in the same department.

After getting details about the nature of the medical procedure itself, the next step is to learn more about your hospital stay. Most parents worry about how their child will cope with the fear and discomfort of a procedure on their own. If your child is going into surgery, ask if you can accompany them to the operation room and stay until they’re asleep—and find out when you’ll be reunited post-op. Other questions to ask: Can you stay the night in your child’s room? What support is available on the day of surgery? Which healthcare practitioners will see your child? What can you bring (or not bring) with you to the hospital? “Once you know the answers, you’ll be in a better position to reassure your child,” Banfield says.

Keep your own fears in check
It’s normal for parents to be nervous, Chambers says, but it’s important to keep it hidden from your child. Ask the doctor or nurse if you can speak to them privately about any questions or concerns you might have. “Address your own fears with a healthcare professional before you talk to your child about what’s about to happen,” Chambers says. Jane Darch, a certified child life specialist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, agrees. “If you’re able to cope well, your child may cope well—they’ll be looking to you for how to respond.”

Plan for when you come home
If your child is having surgery, think ahead to post-operative care. “Ask questions about discharge so you can do some prep work before you go, Banfield says. For instance, if mobility might be an issue, remove area rugs, push furniture out of the way and plug in a night light. Don’t forget to ask about pain management, Chambers adds. “Parents often aren’t prepared for how much pain their child will be in and tend to under-medicate.” Get discharge instructions before you go to the hospital—find out the estimated length of stay, take notes and ask for handouts so you’ll feel more in control when you get home.

Mobilize your forces
Now is the time to get organized so that later, you can focus on your child’s recovery, says Liana Bested, a nurse educator for inpatient surgery at CHEO. Get friends and family on board to help with the care of other children or pets, and line up some extra help with things like meals, cleaning and grocery shopping for when you get home. Find out how long your child’s recovery is likely to take so you can redistribute work responsibilities to coworkers and book time off for follow-up appointments.

When you tell your child they’re going to the hospital…

Stay calm—and be honest
If possible, parents should follow their child’s lead and let them guide the direction of the conversation, Darch says. “Use age-appropriate language, listen to what your child is asking and focus on one question at a time, then let them process it.” They may ask a question, go off and play, then come back and ask another. “It’s how they process new information or something that might be a little frightening,” she says.

Talk about what they will actually see, smell, feel and experience in their procedure, but leave out the other details. Banfield says, “Parents will ask, ‘Should I tell them how their tonsils will be removed?’ And the answer is no, because they won’t see it.”

Most important, Darch says, be truthful. For instance, don’t tell them it won’t hurt when there’s a good chance it will, but reassure them that there is medicine that will help them feel better. “Even if it feels frightening to be that honest, you need to include and support them versus excluding and protecting them,” she says. Be honest if they ask you a question that you don’t know the answer to. “Just say, ‘You know what, I don’t know the answer, so let’s ask the doctor or nurse when we see them.’”

If your child is visibly upset or tells you they don’t want to have surgery, explain why it’s important in ways they can understand. Maybe their tonsils have made sleeping difficult, and having them removed means they won’t be too tired to play with their friends after school anymore. Focus on positive results and why things will be better after their hospital stay, says Banfield.

Read a book
Younger kids often have funny ideas about what an operation actually is, Chambers says. They may be scared of being cut, or afraid their parents are going to leave them on their own. Sometimes a book is the best way to show them how it will all go down — and there are many options to choose from, including stories featuring favourite characters, from Clifford the Big Red Dog to Curious George. Some great titles include Katie Goes to the Hospital by Barbara Taylor Cork, When You’re Sick or in the Hospital by Tom McGrath and Harry Goes to the Hospital by Howard J. Bennett.

Play a game
Using play helps normalize the hospital experience for younger children, Banfield says. “Familiarize them with common medical procedures with a plastic medical kit at home. Your child can examine a teddy bear, check its blood pressure and talk about what a stethoscope does.” To help relieve their stress, Darch recommends teaching your child coping mechanisms like blowing bubbles, blowing a pinwheel or squeezing a stress ball.

Ask whether your hospital offers child life specialists, someone who helps families deal with the stress of hospital visits. This person can help parents work through the challenges of preparing for surgery or hospitalization, and can use play to help children cope with the experience—for instance, by using a doll to explain a procedure.

Take a tour
“One of the things I find most helpful for children (and parents) is when they’re introduced to the floor they’ll be on and become familiarized with what the rooms look like, and the corridors around them,” says Ran Goldman, an emergency paediatrician at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. “It also helps to meet some of the people they may see during their stay.” Encourage your child to ask their own questions of hospital staff. They may even be able to see the entrance to the operating room, or the corridor that leads to it, Goldman says. If an onsite tour isn’t logistically possible, many hospitals also offer virtual tours.

When you’re headed to the hospital… 

Pack light, but right
Make the environment less frightening by bringing items that your child likes most, Goldman says. “For younger children, bring feel-good objects, such as stuffed animals, blankets and a pillow from home. For older children, bring familiar books, computer games and board games that you can play together. Distraction toys may also add comfort when a child is worried, tired or in pain.”

Don’t forget to bring any other medications your child might be on, and ask if you’re allowed to bring food, Bested adds. “Our hospital has a fridge for families to use, which is helpful if your child has any dietary restrictions or is a picky eater.” Also, remember your own self-care and think about what you’re going to eat. “Bring your own cozy PJs, books, snacks, a cell phone charger — whatever you need so you feel more comfortable,” Bested says.

Ask for help
If you can, bring a partner, friend or family member to the hospital to support you while your child is in surgery or undergoing treatment. You can also ask for extra support from hospital staff if you need help or have questions or concerns at any time after the procedure, Banfield says. “This is all routine for us, but rarely is it routine for a child or parent — and we’re here to help make it a positive experience.”

Read more:
Should you have your kid’s tonsils removed?
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