How to visit a child in the hospital

Hospitalized children often feel anxious about upcoming medical procedures and are often tired and stressed due to changes in their normal surroundings and daily schedules. Children express three main fears when hospitalized: fear of bodily harm or pain, fear of the unknown, and fear of separation.

Upon being admitted to the hospital children will have been introduced to over 54 new people, mostly medical personnel, who provide medical intervention such as vital signs, x-rays, blood draws, and physical examinations. Children have few or no choices when it comes to having a procedure performed or having their body examined; therefore, they are often fearful about meeting additional new people.

Familiar faces are often welcomed by children and parents alike as they represent security, friendship, and support. Visiting a child in the hospital provides an opportunity to show concern and to minister to both the child and the family. A few simple guidelines will ensure that the hospital visit goes as smoothly and as positively as possible.

Call First

Call the child's family before you visit. Showing up while the child's doctor or other medical staff is in the room will interrupt and distract the parent and child from important, confidential medical information. Be careful to observe visiting hours and be sensitive to other patient's privacy. You may wish to check in at the nurse station before knocking on the patient's door.

Length of Visit

Keep your visit short. A long visit may overtire the child. However, let the child be your guide. If a child wants you to stay longer, he or she will often tell you. Be prepared to step out of the room or cut your visit short should the medical staff need to examine the child or provide medical attention. Don't assume that the child wants you to sit on his bed, touch, or hug him. If a child has had surgery, he may be sore. Any movement of the bed may irritate the child. Respect a child's space.

Precautionary Measures

Wash your hands upon entering the room. Though you may not hold or touch the child you are visiting, by washing your hands you will help to reduce the introduction of germs to the child's living space. In some cases, hospitalized children may be a serious risk of contracting an illness and in some cases outside germs could be life threatening. Sometimes a visitor may be asked to comply with infection control policies such as wearing a mask or gown.

Gift Considerations

Bringing a gift to a patient is common. However, the child you are visiting may be allergic to the plant or flowers you bring, and often children are not interested in such items. Refrain from bringing food items since the child may not be allowed to eat for a given period or may not feel like eating. Tempting treats sometimes create confusion.

Many hospitals have implemented policies concerning latex balloons since latex is a common allergen and cause of choking. Instead, consider bringing mylar balloons, crayons, drawing paper, watercolor paints, a book, or a bottle of bubbles. For older children consider a journal, an interesting pen, or craft project with all the necessary pieces.

If you know that there will be siblings at the hospital, try to bring them a small gift as well. Siblings sometimes have a difficult time understanding and coping when their brothers or sisters get more focused attention than normal. A small gift that they can hold will help alleviate the tension.

Be Yourself

Being hospitalized is very abnormal for children. Children miss their friends, their pets, their toys, and their normal daily activities. As much as possible, try to be yourself and act as you normally would with the child. Smile, stay calm, talk, and interact with the child. Keep the conversation positive. Regardless of being sick, children don't want to talk about being sick. They want to talk about things that interest them such as school, baseball, or toys. Refrain from talking about the child to his or her parents while in front of the child.

Visiting a child in the hospital is a great way to show your love. It is OK to acknowledge the child's illness, but remind yourself that though they are sick they still want to play, converse, and participate in activities that are normal to them. Sometimes a child may be too sick to enjoy a visit; but, just stopping by the hospital to check on the child and her family can be a loving reminder that you care. Caring is what ministry is all about.

Some of the ideas mentioned are based on Children's Thoughts and Feelings Regarding Their Treatment Environment: Stresspoints and Coping in a Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic by W.N. Yeaple's Doctoral Dissertation, DAI-B 59/09, University of New York City, New York, United State

Leanne Lackey is a certified child life specialist and is a member of First Baptist Church, Nashville, Tennessee

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