Preparing Your Child

If your child is feeling anxious about an upcoming hospital visit, don't worry. We're especially sensitive to the mind-set and needs of young patients, and do everything we can to make your child's experience a calm and positive one.

You can play an invaluable role by mentally preparing your child for the visit. If a child knows what to expect at the hospital, the process as a whole - including tests, procedures, or medications - is likely to produce less anxiety and go more smoothly. Here are some suggestions to help you talk with your child about the hospital experience:

At Home

Before you leave for the hospital, you should explain to your child where you're going, and why.

  • Set the stage. Choose a quiet time to talk and use a calm and relaxed tone of voice. Tell your child that they'll be going to the hospital for an operation, test, or procedure, and let them know that you feel this is the right thing to do. Children can usually sense how a parent feels about a hospitalization or a procedure.
  • Talk about the hospital. Ask what your child knows or thinks about the hospital. Listen to their feelings and help them talk about it. Depending on the age of your child (see guidelines below), you might find it helpful to start by talking about what a hospital is. For example, you might say, "The hospital is a place where people of all ages go when their bodies need some help. The doctors and nurses know a lot about how our bones and muscles and insides work. They try to help us get well, feel better, and stay healthy." Let your child know it's OK to feel curious, worried, angry, or frustrated about going to the hospital.
  • Pack some favorite things. Build your child's confidence by involving them in organizing and packing a few things for the visit. Encourage your child to bring their favorite possessions, such as a stuffed animal, pillow, or books.

At the Hospital

After arriving at the hospital, you can help keep your child calm and relaxed before, during, and after tests and treatments. In general, it's important to inform children what they're about to experience.

  • Avoid surprises. Let your child know in advance if a test or procedure is about to happen, even if it's something uncomfortable (like a needle). This will give them a feeling of trust. Use honest and simple explanations that fit your child's age and level of understanding, and ask them questions to make sure they understand what you've said.
  • Encourage questions. Encourage your child to ask you and the doctors and nurses a lot of questions. If your child is uneasy about asking questions, you can ask on their behalf.
  • Use reassuring language. Try to choose words that are neutral when describing procedures and tests to your child. For example, you might say, "The nurse will 'slide' the needle into your arm," rather than "'stick' or 'poke' a needle into your arm."
  • Explain what's happening. Tell your child how they might feel before, during, and after a procedure or test. For example, you may want to explain that they won't hear, see, or feel anything during an operation, because the doctor will give them a special sleep medicine called anesthesia beforehand. Try not to make promises you can't keep. Don't tell your child that nothing will hurt or that there won't be any blood tests, for instance.

If your child seems unusually worried and frightened about her visit to the hospital, you may want to consult a counselor. The psychologists and psychiatrists in our Behavioral Medicine Clinic can provide evaluations, treatment, and support for you and your family.

Age-Related Guidelines

As you prepare your child for the hospital, bear in mind that their understanding of the experience -- including diagnoses, treatments, and procedures -- will depend on their age, personality, language development, and ability to process information. Although they may not fit your child exactly (since children develop at different rates), these guidelines will help you choose age-appropriate language and communicate more effectively with your child:

Newborns to age 2
When your child is very young, concentrate on preparing yourself and your family for the hospital. If parents feel at ease, their child is usually able to sense this and react in the same way.

Ages 2 to 3
At this age, children don't understand time in the same way that older children and adults do. Consider telling your child about their operation or procedure one or two days before going to the hospital.

Ages 3 to 6
Children are beginning to learn about the days of the week and are developing a sense of time. It's hard for a child to understand why they need an operation or procedure. Your child may worry that they have done something wrong; reassure them that the hospital stay is about having something fixed and is never a punishment. Consider telling a 3- or 4-year-old about a hospital visit one to two days ahead of time. For a 5- or 6-year-old, three to five days ahead may be more appropriate.

Ages 7 to 11
By this age, children are able to understand the reason for a hospital stay and have developed a sense of time. You may want to tell your child about an operation or procedure a week before going to the hospital. This will give them plenty of time to ask questions and talk about any worries they may have.

Ages 12 and up
It's best to include older children in healthcare planning from the beginning. Encourage your child to ask questions and to talk about their concerns. Most children are struggling for independence from their parents while at the same time seeking their support. You may want to ask your child how you can help them through the hospital stay or procedure.