Nearly all children will have a health problem at some time, from catching common childhood illnesses like chickenpox, to living with conditions like asthma or eczema, or even requiring hospital treatment for serious illness or injury.
No matter how minor their ailment, seeing your child in pain and being powerless to help them is one of the hardest feelings a parent can face.
While you won’t always be able to make their pain or condition go away, there are things you can do to make being ill or in hospital less stressful for both you and your child.
Talking things through together
It might be tempting not to talk to your child too much about their illness or upcoming treatment, but simple, honest and reassuring explanations can stop them becoming frightened or confused about what’s happening to them.
Encourage your child to talk about what’s happening and to ask their own questions.
Answer their questions simply and honestly as they arise, and try to wait until your little one seems to have absorbed and understood one answer before offering new information.
Knowledge is power
Another thing that can help you both stay calm is to arm yourself with as much information as you can about your child’s condition, or the operation or treatment that they’re going to have.
If your child has a health condition, understanding how that part of their body works and why they need the treatment they’re having can be really useful. Look around for age-appropriate books or games that can help you to explore this together.
Preparing for an operation or hospital stay
Having a child in hospital, or facing an operation can be one of the most stressful things for a family to experience, but there’s a lot you can do to prepare yourself and your child to make everything as relaxed as possible.
Many hospitals send out information about treatment in advance, or have resources online to help you plan ahead. Sometimes you’ll even be able to visit the hospital beforehand so that your child can get to know the places and faces involved.
- Talk about the hospital visit in simple, straightforward language.
- See if you can visit the ward or department beforehand to familiarise your child with it.
- Encourage your child to ask questions.
- Reassure them that it’s normal to feel scared, and that they can always tell you if they’re worried or in pain.
- Think about how far ahead you talk to your child about their hospital stay. For 2-3 year olds, two or three days in advance (and again on the day) is fine, but for 4-7 year olds, you might start discussing it a week beforehand.
- Some children may enjoy being involved with preparation like packing their hospital bag, or choosing a toy to take along.
- If your child has special needs, talk to the hospital staff beforehand – many hospitals will have a checklist of details to discuss so that they can be ready to look after you and your child.
Looking after yourself
If your child is sick, undergoing medical treatment or having surgery, it’s natural that your focus is going to be entirely on them. However, it’s also really important that you look after yourself too – if you’re coping well, it will make things much easier for your little one.
It’s easy to feel a bit side-lined when your child is in hospital, and it’s helpful if you can stay as involved as possible in their day-to-day care. Don’t hesitate to ask questions if you’re unsure about what’s going on – write things down as they occur to you to ask next time you have the opportunity.
Try to arrange for one friend or family member to pass on news to everyone else – this will save you the stress of phoning round lots of people with the same information when you just want to be spending time with your child.
Tips for talking to your child about having an anaesthetic:
- Having an anaesthetic for an operation or other medical procedure is often a big concern for parents and children alike, and it can be a difficult thing to explain simply to little ones. Here are some things you could say to prepare your child for the experience:
- Anaesthesia is a very deep sleep (unconsciousness) caused by medicines, which means you cannot hear, see or feel anything while an operation or test is being done.
- You can usually have ‘magic cream’ on your hands or arms which helps to stop injections from hurting.
- There are two ways to go to sleep, with an injection in your hand, or with a mask full of sleepy air – sometimes the anaesthetist has to say which is best, but it might be possible to choose.
- The anaesthetist is a doctor who stays with you all the way through the operation to look after you. They use lots of monitoring equipment to make sure you are safe.
- You get anaesthetic medicine all the way through the operation to make sure that you stay asleep. It is turned off when the operation is finished, and you’ll wake up about five minutes later.
- Usually, mum or dad can be with you when you go to sleep, and they will be there again when you wake up.
- You will get medicine to stop you feeling sore or sick when you wake up, but the nurses can always give you more medicine if you need it.
- Usually, the anaesthetist will come and speak to you and your child before an anaesthetic. They’ll assess your child and make a plan for their anaesthetic. They’ll also give you the chance to ask any questions you might have, and if your child is still very anxious, they may arrange for them to have some sedative medicine to relax them before the anaesthetic.
Tips for parents and carers of children with special needs
If your child has special needs, you’re likely to have a few extra concerns when it comes to navigating medical problems and procedures.
It’s very common for children with special needs to require hospital treatment, even if it’s just to have routine investigations or dental treatment carried out under a general anaesthetic.
Lots of children with special needs find hospital visits or medical procedures a challenge, and can struggle with things like change to routine, being in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people, the discomfort of fasting before an anaesthetic, or just not understanding what’s happening and why.
The general information provided by hospitals might not always be appropriate for your family, but you can still do a lot to help your little one cope with their medical treatment or hospital visit:
- Breaking down the hospital visit into a series of steps might help children with other learning difficulties who can understand ‘now’ and ‘next’, but may struggle to grasp a complex series of procedures at once.
- You can even illustrate your time-line with symbols or pictures, as use it for preparation beforehand as well as on the day.
- Try to speak to someone on the ward or department in advance to make sure they’re aware of your child’s specific needs – they’ll often have a checklist to ensure they have all the information they’ll need to look after your little one.
- It’s not always possible, but anaesthetists and surgeons will often try to put children with special needs first on operating lists to minimise waiting time and reduce how long they’ll need to go without food.
- It may also be possible to provide quiet waiting areas or side-rooms for children who find busy public spaces difficult.
- Staff will need to know if your little one needs constant supervision, so that they can be prepared to provide appropriate care if you need to leave the room.
- You know your child best, and their care will be a team effort – for example, you may be able to help make the decision about something like using sedative medicine before a medical procedure.
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