How to calm a child who’s scared in hospital

Tearful, frightened of needles, difficult to settle? Follow this advice to help relax your little patient

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Children are regularly admitted to hospitals, for reasons as varied as asthma, tooth decay, tonsillectomy or diabetes.

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For most of us, a hospital is a strange and unfamiliar environment and all children need lots of reassurance about what is going to happen there.

And remember, it may be the first time for you and your child, but for the hospital team it’s all in a day’s work.

1 Get talking You can prepare you child by talking to him about why he is going to hospital, tailoring your explanations to his age and level of understanding.  It might also be possible to visit the ward beforehand and meet some of the staff there.

My daughter, now nine, has had three operations for her cleft lip since she was four months old. I used to read her books such as ‘Topsy and Tim Go to Hospital’ to help get her used to the idea.

2 Use toys to play act Try acting out scenes with toys and teddies, such as having his blood pressure taken. Medical processes can seem much less frightening when your child has visualised what’s likely to happen.

3 Be honest If you don’t know exactly what is going to happen or whether something will hurt, then say so, and try to find out the answer from the ward staff. Always tell the truth – your child needs to be able to trust you.

4 Involve your child Some children benefit from being involved in tasks such as packing their bag and choosing favourite toys or videos to take with them.  Encourage older children to ask questions themselves – making a list before you go in can really help to address any fears or worries.

5 Worrying is OK Most importantly, let your child know that it’s all right to feel scared or apprehensive.  With younger children especially, it’s best not to tell them too far in advance – they have little concept of time and it will just give them longer to worry about it all. 

How do you help a child who’s afraid of needles?

If your child is afraid of needles, try to establish what it is that she is most worried about, or what it was that most scared her last time. 

Try acting out taking a blood sample with a play medical kit and your child’s dolls or teddies, to make sure your child is clear about the procedure and why it is necessary.

Numbing spray or anaesthetic cream can reduce the amount of pain when the needle is inserted, but she may still feel it. If possible, allow your child to be involved in some choices, such as whether she sits on your lap, or on a chair, or has the injection lying down.

Facing a fear of needles is one situation where insisting on your child ‘being brave’ is not helpful.
Let your child know it’s all right to cry or yell, and even for you to join in!
However, if you know it’s going to happen, it’s helpful to tell the nurse beforehand. 

Distraction techniques can be really useful, such as reading a book together, singing or playing with a noisy toy.
Recent research shows that having an injection is psychologically less frightening if you don’t watch the needle coming towards your skin.

Some children’s wards have a play specialist. If this is the case in your hospital, ask for advice and for any other strategies that might help.

How do you help if your child is very tearful?

If your child is very upset and tearful, the best thing you can do is give her lots of physical comfort and reassurance. 

As with the fear of needles, telling her not to cry, or to behave like a ‘big girl or boy’, is best avoided.  Again, distracting them with toys, books or videos can often work well.

What if your child doesn’t want to take medicine?

All children can sometimes be stubborn and uncooperative about issues such as taking medicine. 

If your child feels that her feelings are being taken seriously and she’s included in decisions about her treatment she’s more likely to comply. So it’s important to try and work with her. 

It may be that she doesn’t feel ill, so she doesn’t see why she needs the medicine. If this is the case, explain what the medicine is doing for her and how it’s helping. 

Younger children are more likely to refuse to take medicine because they don’t like the texture or taste, so discuss with the ward staff whether it’s possible to take it in a drink or disguise the taste in some way. 

Play-acting can also be a good technique, too – get Teddy to take his medicine (always a good patient!) and then let your child know it’s her turn now.

How do you help a child settle in hospital?

Hospitals are strange and sometimes intimidating places for children.

Having you there is going to be the most comforting thing for your child. Physical contact is really important, from holding hands to giving lots of reassuring cuddles and kisses. 

Let her know that it’s OK to feel scared and to cry. 

Also, help your child feel comfortable by showing her around the ward so that she knows where and what everything is, starting with the toilet! 

Some children clam up when they are worried or anxious, so you could use a toy as a substitute, and ask how Teddy is feeling about being in hospital, to help her express her fears. 

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