Helping your Child through Medical Procedures and Hospital Stays
At some point, you may need to take your child for a medical procedure or to the hospital. These experiences can be overwhelming, especially for children with disability. Here are strategies to make the process easier for medical staff, your child, and yourself.
Before medical procedures
It can help to take some time to prepare if you know a hospital stay, procedure, or appointment is coming up for your child. The following strategies can help to prepare yourself and your child before the procedure or hospital stay.
- Prepare for the hospital environment. Ask for changes that can make the hospital more comfortable for your child, such as a low tone of voice when speaking, quiet areas, soft lighting, and closed doors during busy times.
- Use social stories and videos. Find or create stories and videos that explain the hospital or procedure to your child. This can help reduce anxiety and provide a better understanding.
- Share what has worked before. Let the hospital know what has worked well in the past, like if your child needs sedation for anxiety during procedures.
- Explore hospital services. Ask about services like child life therapy, music therapy, or special programs available during your stay. These can provide comfort and support for your child.
- Share details about your child. Prepare an “All About Me” page with information about your child’s communication, interests, and sensory needs. This will help staff understand how to best support your child.
- Use visual schedules. Use visual schedules, including digital apps such as Choiceworks, to show your child what will happen at the hospital. This will help them understand and feel more prepared.
- Bring comfort items. Pack familiar items from home, like a favourite blanket or pillowcase, to provide comfort in the hospital environment.
- Explain the plan to your child. Choose the right time to talk to your child about the upcoming procedure. Explain what will happen and reassure them that hospitals are friendly places where people get better. Also let them know that sometimes there can be delays and changes to the plan.
- Use the 5 W’s. Discuss with your child why the procedure needs to happen, where it will happen, what might happen, what they need to do, and who will be there.
- Prepare rewards. Have small rewards or prizes ready for your child after procedures or at different points during their hospital stay. This can motivate and comfort them.
” We need to have a realistic picture of our health problem so we can be better prepared to handle the required length of our hospital stay… For young people, it is still important to give them a realistic picture so they can be prepared. This can be done with a social Story: Why we need to go to the hospital, what to expect when we get there, and the type of things that the medical staff will be doing to help us get better”. Tim Chan
Tips for During the Procedure
Here are a few tips for helping your child through medical procedures or hospital admissions.
- Communicate needs and adjustments. Tell the staff about your child’s disability or condition and any accommodations they may require, such as less noise or low lighting.
- Observe anxiety cues. Pay attention to signs of anxiety in your child and share these with the medical team. If needed, ask if there are options for sedation or medication to help manage their anxiety.
- Provide comforting support. Ask if you can hold your child in a comforting position (a secure hugging hold that helps your child feel safe) during the procedure or be present to comfort them afterward, based on what works best for your family.
- Use distractions. Bring items like bubbles, sensory toys, or an iPad with their favourite shows or distraction apps to help keep your child occupied and relaxed.
- Offer choices. Whenever possible, give your child choices about things they can control during the procedure, such as ‘Do you want the procedure on the bed or chair?’ or ‘Do you want the probe on your finger or toe?’.
- Use clear directions. Give calm and direct instructions to your child without offering choices when actions need to be taken. This helps them understand what is expected. For example, “You need to walk to the treatment room” rather than “Do you want to walk to the treatment room?”.
- Use visuals and AAC. If communication is a challenge, consider using visuals, such as to express pain or stress indicators, and augmentative and alternative communication tools to assist in the hospital setting.
“It is important for the child or person with communication support needs to be acknowledged and addressed directly by the staff. We feel included when we are able to express ourselves and understand what is happening to us and around us.” Tim Chan
“The lack of predictability and control can be difficult for those of us who need quiet to even go through an ordinary day”. Tim Chan
Tips for After the Admission or Procedure
After the procedure or admission, it will take time to recover, and it is important to acknowledge that you and your child have been through a tiring and often stressful event.
- Provide immediate comfort and validation. Be there to comfort your child and acknowledge their feelings immediately after the procedure. Let them know you understand and support them.
- Consider rewards. Plan a special reward or treat to celebrate your child’s bravery and accomplishment. It can be simple, like a special dinner or extra time for their favourite activities.
- Debrief with your child. When your child is calm, even if it’s a few days later, talk about their experience and how they feel. Remind them of their strength and braveness.
- Seek support for yourself. As a parent or caregiver, it’s important to process your own feelings and experiences. Reach out to professionals, like Carer Gateway’s free phone counselling service, or seek support from friends and family.
“It is important for our children’s anxiety and needs to be taken seriously within the healthcare system. When my son had to undergo regular medical procedures or interventions, and his anxiety and unique autistic sensory and communication needs were not considered, his struggles could extend beyond the health setting. It can lead to struggles with overall anxiety and difficulties with things such as taking medication at home, for example, or being fearful of strangers in other social environments. The healthcare setting can be overwhelming, with lots of noise, unpredictability and sensory challenges. Medical trauma for children with medical needs, disabilities and delays can have lasting impacts on the parents and the child.” Maddy B, parent