Preparing Kids—and Yourself—for Their Hospital Visit: 11 Tips

Before a test or procedure is needed, getting kids comfortable with medicine makes all the difference.

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Without thoughtful preparation, your kid's visit to the hospital has the potential to morph into a traumatic experience. Yet some upfront legwork on the part of mom and dad can ease a child's anxiety and also set the stage for his or her positive future dealings with the medical world. "Parents are the No. 1 comforting agent for the kids," says Randall Clark, chair of the American Society of Anesthesiologists' committee on pediatric anesthesia, who specializes in cardiac anesthesia at Children's Hospital just outside Denver. U.S. News talked to several pros to learn how parents can help make a child's hospital visit as painless as possible—not only for the child but for themselves, too.

Don't wait until a test or procedure is necessary. Because it's impossible to predict when a child—or his sibling, parent, or grandparent, for that matter—might need medical care, parents should proactively set kids' perceptions of hospitals, medicine, nurses, and doctors, says Gail Klayman, a child life specialist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "Talk positively about healthcare and healthcare encounters," she explains. For example, when a blaring ambulance speeds down the street, you might comment to a young child, " 'There go our helpers, helping people get better.' " And if you've had a negative medical experience yourself? "Keep all that conversation out of earshot of a child," she says. Such talk could stoke a lifetime of anxiety about health or medical professionals.

Find out about additional resources. Great care does not start and end with the doctors and nurses. Depending on the hospital, parents and pediatric patients stand to benefit from ancillary services, often centralized in a family resource center, which can include a library of medical information and staff to help with research and assistance with accommodations for families of out-of-town patients. And particularly if you're going to a children's hospital, parents can expect a cadre of specially trained experts to help smooth a visit. Child-life specialists are experts in child development and are trained to help young patients cope—be it with a serious chronic illness or a one-time test—through play, distraction, and education. They are skilled in winning the trust of young patients, in part because they don't wield needles. They can be called upon to teach a youngster what to expect during a CT scan, maybe using a Barbie doll and a toy scanner. Or they might be recruited to help distract a teenager from the discomfort of a large catheter being inserted, perhaps by guiding the teen to imagine and describe a place that relaxes them, like their favorite hiking spot or family beach.

Give your child advance warning. Too often, parents bring their child to the hospital for a scheduled surgery without telling him or her anything in advance. "That type of approach should be avoided at all costs," says Clark. "It really puts [the care team] in an awkward and terrible position." He suspects that parents just want to protect their child. But not arming young patients with age-appropriate information can backfire, as what they imagine is happening may be far worse than what really is.

Show your child what can be expected. If your child is facing surgery, take advantage of an operating room tour, if available. Familiarizing a child with the bright lights and hulking machines can demystify the place, as can letting kids hold or play with the breathing mask that will be put over their nose and mouth to deliver anesthesia drugs. Putting on the sterile garb, hats, and masks can also make the preop experience feel less foreign and frightening. Kids may get nervous that all the instruments will be used on them (which they won't). Jodi Bauers, a child-life manager at Helen De Vos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., allays such fears by explaining that the room is used for many kinds of kids' operations—on lungs and legs, hearts and tummies—and that "we don't have many closets."