Hospitals and Children

A trip to the hospital can be scary for anyone, particularly for a child. Being away from loved ones, being in a strange setting, and sometimes having painful medical procedures are stressful. Because children do not understand illness, they may believe that getting sick is their fault. Your child may view pain and other symptoms as the result of being “bad”, and being in the hospital as “punishment”. There are things you can do to help your child.

Before going to the hospital

  • If this is a planned hospital stay, start talking about it ahead of time. Tell your child what he may see, hear, smell, and feel. For 2 and 3 year olds, start talking about the hospital 1 or 2 days ahead of time. If your child is 4 or 5 years old, 3 or 4 days is best. School age children should be involved in the planning process 1 or 2 weeks before going to the hospital. If you have a teen, he should be involved right from the beginning. Let your child help prepare to go to the hospital. Let your child pack, select toys, and plan fun activities to give your child a feeling of control and comfort.
  • Read books together about being in the hospital. Talking about what happened to another child or a book about a child who is in a hospital is reassuring. It also helps your child understand what may happen. Let him know that he may feel many emotions during his stay. Reading about the main character leaving the hospital is very comforting.
  • Explain in words your child can understand why he is going to the hospital and what may happen while he is there. Ask your child’s healthcare provider to help. Let your child know that you think this is the right thing to do. Encourage your child to ask questions. Answer his questions honestly. Children may make up stories if they don’t have the facts.
  • With a young child, use a doll, puppet, or stuffed animal to show how medical procedures such as X-rays and injections are done. Give your child a toy medical kit, so he can practice on a stuffed animal or doll. Your child will be more cooperative and less stressed if he knows what to expect.
  • If possible, take a tour of the hospital with your child and other family members. Getting to know hospital rooms, equipment, and the people who work there makes it less scary.

At the hospital

  • Visit your child often, or see if you can stay with your child. Invite grandparents and older siblings to visit to give you a break without leaving your sick child alone.
  • When you leave, say good-bye. Do not sneak away while your child is sleeping or doing something else. Instead, make your good-bye short and visible. If your child sleeps a lot, let her know that you may leave once she goes to sleep. Tell your child when you will return.
  • Bring a little bit of home to the hospital. Family photos, recorded stories or messages, cards, phone calls, and cuddly toys all provide comfort and security. They reassure your child that he is loved and not forgotten.
  • Let the people who are taking care of your child know a little bit about your child’s favorite sports or hobbies, best friends, or special interests. This helps the staff make the hospital stay feel more personal and comfortable for your child.
  • Ask if the hospital has a child life specialist that you can work with. A child life specialist is someone trained to help children cope with the stress and fear they feel when they are sick or injured. They give information and support to you, your child, and your family while your child is in the hospital. All hospitals have chaplains on staff to help patients and families with their spiritual and religious needs while hospitalized. The hospital social worker can help with resources to help your child when he goes home from the hospital.

After going home from the hospital

  • Encourage your child to talk about the hospital stay. Help your child sort out feelings about the hospital visit by talking about bad and good events.
  • Do not be surprised if your child acts younger than his age. He may be more demanding and dependent for a while. Provide extra hugs, kisses, and words of support.
  • Never use the threat of going to the hospital as a way to control your child’s behavior. Avoid statements like, “If you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll wind up in the hospital again.” A statement like this only creates anxiety and guilt.


Your routines will change when your child is in the hospital. You may feel helpless, fearful, and angry. You may worry about your child in the hospital and your other children at home. You may sleep in chairs in your child’s room or on sofas in the waiting room. You may clean up and change clothes in hospital restrooms. You may lose sleep and lose your appetite. Remember that you need to take care of yourself in order to take care of your child.

  • Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet. Limit caffeine. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Get some exercise by taking walks or playing with your kids. Exercise will also help you sleep and improve your appetite. Exercise, sleep, and healthy eating can help lower stress levels.
  • Get support. Many people say “tell me how I can help”, but don’t know what you really need. There are many things that would help you and your family when you have a child in the hospital. Give friends, family, and coworkers specific examples, such as bringing meals, cleaning the house, helping take care of other children, or visiting you and your child in the hospital. Simply having someone there to listen or hold a hand can be very comforting.

Brothers and sisters

  • Keep a routine. Try to stick with a normal schedule as much as you can, especially for bedtimes and meals. Let your other children participate in school and activities with friends. These activities help children cope with stress. Be aware of events or activities in their lives, and show that you are interested even if you can’t be there.
  • Talk briefly and honestly with your other children. Using words they can understand, tell them about their brother or sister’s illness. Let your children talk about their feelings, and let them know you are willing to answer questions. There are support groups in many cities for children with seriously ill siblings. Let teachers know what is happening and that your children may need extra support
  • It is a good idea to let brothers and sisters visit, call, email, or send letters or pictures to your sick child. Show that you appreciate what they are doing to help, whether it is doing chores, making a get well card, or just being brave.
  • It is normal for siblings to feel sad, angry, guilty, jealous, and anxious. They may say they are “glad he is sick”. Younger children may pretend to be sick to get the same attention that their brother or sister is getting. Let children know that their words and behavior are not OK. You may not feel like disciplining your children while you have a child in the hospital. However, sticking to family rules helps children feel safe and secure and helps limit problem behavior.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-09-29
Last reviewed: 2014-09-29
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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