Going to spend the night at the hospital for a child is, in some ways, like going to spend the night at grandma’s house. Parents help their little ones pack an overnight bag, children can take their special stuffed animal or toy with them for comfort, and everyone in both places wants to take good care of them. But since the hospital is a place where most children have never been before, parents need for them to understand why going there is necessary so they can feel safe and secure during their stay.
Preparing children to go to the hospital can help them feel reassured, cooperate better, and have fewer post-hospital adjustment problems and anxiety. The most important things for parents to do is provide information at a level appropriate for the age of the child, make sure the children don’t have any misunderstandings about going to the hospital, and dispelling any feelings of fear or guilt. This also gives children the opportunity to think of and ask questions so they can clear up any misconceptions about their upcoming hospital experience.
Common fears children may have about being in the hospital can include being away from family and friends, thinking they did something wrong or are being punished, having a part of their body injured or removed, losing control, experiencing pain or dying during surgery. To help children deal with these stressors, parents can:
- Arrange for a tour of the hospital before admission.
- Talk about what will happen to them in general, understandable terms so they know what to expect.
- Emphasize that the child has not done anything wrong and is not being punished.
- Explain the benefits of going to the hospital, such as, “After surgery for your broken leg you will be able to do gymnastics again.”
- Encourage the child to ask the nurses and doctors questions.
- Be understanding if the child starts to express fears about going to the hospital or displays regressive behavior, such as potty training or being afraid of the dark.
Young children may benefit from reading appropriate level books about what to expect at the hospital or role-playing with a doll or teddy bear by “taking” the toy’s temperature, “checking” its pulse, or “listening” to its heartbeat. Make sure children understand that they will wake up from anesthesia, won’t feel pain during the operation, and their parents will be waiting for them when they wake up. Remember that children can tell if their parents are worried, so try to keep signs of distress to yourself as much as possible.
It is important to keep in mind a child’s previous experience at the hospital, if any. Did they go to the hospital to meet a new sibling or see a sick relative? This association can affect how the child perceives an upcoming hospital experience.
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