If your child is facing a hospital stay, you want to do all you can to make the hospital less strange and frightening.
Fear of the unknown can be worse than fear of the known, so letting your child know what to expect will go a long way toward lowering fear and stress.
And when a child has less fear and stress, he or she has more energy to use for other things—like getting better as fast as possible.
A great side effect of teaching your child about the hospital and about what will happen is that you'll be teaching yourself as well. And if your own fears and stress are lower, that's good for your child too.
Talk is good
Don't make the mistake of thinking that your child is too young to understand or that he or she is better off not knowing. Use simple language that fits the child's age. Remember that too many details might scare younger children.
You know your child best, so allow enough time before the hospital stay to explain what will happen. Some children react better when going to the hospital is explained right before it occurs, so they won't have time to worry or dream about it.
Or your child may react better if he or she has some time to talk with you about what will happen before the visit.
To get the conversation going, you could ask your child what he or she knows about the hospital. Explain why this hospital stay is happening, and encourage your child to talk about it.
Talk about the good things that will happen at the end of the hospital stay, like going home. Focus on how your child may feel afterward and how being in the hospital may help with a health problem.
There are many books—for parents and for children of various age levels—that help explain hospital visits, surgery, and what to expect. Reading a book with you can help your child talk about his or her fears. Ask your doctor for recommendations.
Answer questions honestly, and don't make promises you can't keep. For example, don't promise that there won't be any pain. Instead, be encouraging: Getting a shot may hurt, but only for a few seconds.
Consider your child's feelings
Let your child know it's normal to feel afraid or even angry. He or she shouldn't feel embarrassed by these feelings. And your child should know that he or she can talk to you about them.
Find out whether the hospital will allow you or another family member to be in the child's room all the time. Most hospitals allow this. Knowing this ahead of time may help your child be less afraid.
Make sure the child knows the hospital stay isn't punishment for anything and that lots of kids go through this.
Take a guided tour
Many hospitals have special programs to help kids prepare. The program will include tours and talks. It may be done with groups of children or with one child at a time. Ask your child's doctor about this if you think it will help.
Sometimes special ways of communicating are used, such as puppet shows, books, DVDs, or playtime. Some hospitals have a specialist on staff whose job it is to help children and their families cope with a hospital stay.
Conduct your own tour
If your hospital doesn't have a formal preparation program, you can create one for your child. Call the hospital and tell them you would like a tour. Give them a list of the places in the hospital you would like your child to see.
See if you can schedule the tour during a less busy time, when one of the nurses in your child's area will be available to meet you and your child.
Include other children
Don't neglect the feelings of your other children. They may be worried and afraid too.
Give them things to do. Older siblings may be able to make the child feel more cheerful.
Some siblings won't want to talk about it. Instead, you can talk to them about things they can do to help while their sibling is in the hospital.
If you and your child take a hospital tour, consider taking siblings along.