To a child, going to the hospital is akin to visiting a foreign land. The building doesn’t look like home. It doesn’t smell like home either. The food tastes funny, and many of the grownups wear weird clothes. To top it off, doctors frequently come in the room and ask to look at their private parts.
However, parents can prevent hospital trauma by following some of these tips. You'll note that each tip varies depending on the age of the child.
Birth to Age Two
For this age group, it's the parent's job to be on top of things. As parents, you should be present whenever possible, but never ask for or agree to do anything that causes pain in front of the child. Your role should always be that of comforter and rescuer.
Ages Three to Four
Wait until just a few days before hospitalization to say anything to two and three-year-olds. But when the time comes, be sure to communicate accurately. Try saying, “You need to go to the hospital,” instead of “We need to go.” On the big day, resist asking, “Are you ready to go to the hospital?” since the child has no choice in the matter. Provide opportunities for appropriate control with questions like, “Do you want to take your blue pajamas or the green ones?”
Ages Five to Twelve
Children in this age group respond positively to hands-on medical play. If your child is scheduled for surgery, nurses at the surgery clinic should have play kits for children to explore. The kits include an anesthesia mask to try on, as well as a paper gown, cap, mask, and slippers. Kids can play with a needleless syringe, use a stethoscope, and other medical equipment. Very often, coloring books and reading material about going to the hospital are sent home for families to read and complete together. Similar information can be located by calling the child life department of the nearest children’s hospitals.
Ages Twelve to Eighteen
Adolescents usually want to be treated like adults. So talk about what will happen as you would to any other adult. Encourage them to ask questions and talk about how they feel.
Hospital Emergency Visits
The nature of emergency hospitalization makes it hard to prepare for them. But families can be proactive by visiting the local hospital when the kids are healthy. Contact the hospital beforehand, explain what you’re doing, and ask for a tour. If your child goes for treatment in a children’s hospital emergency room, ask the child life specialist–most children’s hospitals have one assigned to the emergency room–to work with your child. If your child receives emergency treatment at a smaller hospital, ask if they have a medical play kit. Finally, after an unplanned emergency room visit, watch for signs of trauma in babies and young children, as well as in adolescents and teens. If you see them, seek treatment as early as possible.