Going to hospital: concerns for babies, toddlers and preschoolers

Going to hospital is a challenging experience for young children.

Common concerns for babies, toddlers and preschoolers include:

  • being separated from you and other family members
  • meeting and being physically handled by strangers
  • not understanding what’s happening – for example, being given an injection
  • changing normal feeding and sleeping routines
  • worrying about scary or strange things that might happen to them in hospital – preschoolers have amazing imaginations!

These tips can help with your child’s concerns before you go to hospital:

  • Read stories together about hospitals, what happens in hospitals, who works in hospitals and so on.
  • Visit the hospital. If you can’t get to the hospital, you could try looking at pictures of it online. When your child is admitted to hospital, stay with him in the hospital, if and when you can.
  • For toddlers and preschoolers, use dolls, toys or real-life items like bandages to act out the roles of doctors, nurses and patients.
  • Ask your hospital if you’re allowed to stay overnight with your child.

These tips can help with your child’s concerns during the hospital stay:

  • Keep routines as close to normal as possible – for example, have meals and sleeps at your usual family times if you can. If you can’t follow your usual routines, try to set up a routine for your stay.
  • Bring familiar things from home to help your child feel secure – for example, your child’s favourite comforter or teddy bear if she has one.
  • Ask whether you can hold your child on your lap for procedures and tests. Stay calm and speak softly in a reassuring voice during procedures and tests, even if your child is in pain or upset.

If your child is very anxious about going to hospital, ask hospital staff for help. Your hospital might have a child life therapist you could talk to.

Going to hospital: concerns for older children and teenagers

As children get older, they’ll be more aware of what’s happening to them. Common concerns for older children and teenagers include:

  • going through the procedure and any pain it might cause
  • being separated from you, home, family and friends
  • missing out on social activities with friends
  • losing their privacy or feeling like they don’t have their own space
  • being, looking or feeling different after the procedure
  • being left alone in hospital
  • falling behind everyone else at school.

Here are some tips to help with your older or teenage child’s concerns:

  • Answer all your child’s questions and concerns truthfully. If you don’t know the answer, work with your child to find out. For example, talk to health professionals or look online together.
  • Describe things in terms of what your child might see, feel, smell, taste, hear and so on. For example, if your child needs an MRI, you could talk about and look at pictures of the MRI machine.
  • Read books or look at websites about how the adolescent body works. This can help your child understand how the procedure will or won’t affect him in the short and long term.
  • Help your child stay engaged with learning and connected with family, friends and classmates by setting her up with video chat apps and email. Our article on managing a hospital stay has more ideas.

Going to hospital: concerns for siblings

If your child is in hospital, it can be challenging for the whole family, including your child’s siblings. Siblings might feel:

  • confused about what’s happening to their brother or sister
  • worried about whether their brother or sister will be OK, or whether they’ll need to go to hospital too
  • upset by changes to your family routines
  • left out or jealous if you’re spending lots of time away from home.

Here are some tips to help siblings with their feelings and concerns:

  • Give your child’s sibling information in language that’s appropriate for his age. Encourage him to ask questions and talk about concerns.
  • Allow your child’s sibling to pick out a special book, toy or stuffed animal to share with her sibling going to hospital.
  • Set up a consistent schedule for visits, phone calls or video chats.
  • Get your child’s sibling to play games about being in hospital. Or read books or look at websites to learn more about hospitals and medical procedures.
  • Get your child to draw pictures or cards to decorate his sibling’s hospital room.
  • Let your child’s teachers know what’s happening and what your family is going through.
  • Make some one-on-one time for your child’s sibling.
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