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Comforting Your Child During Medical Procedures

  • Chris Woolston, M.S.
  • Posted March 11, 2013

What can I do to comfort my child during medical procedures or hospital stays?

Even though the typical pediatrician's office comes fully equipped with clowns on the wall and a dozen issues of Highlights magazine in the waiting room, your child will still look to you for comfort if he's worried or scared. Here are some tips for helping your child cope:

  • Be there. The sight or touch and familiar voice of a parent can make all the difference for a frightened child, especially if he's too young to understand his predicament. As the most potent security object in his life, you let him know that his world is still intact just by being there. If your child will be in the hospital overnight, ask if you or your spouse can spend the night in his room. If doctors or nurses are reluctant to let you stay, a friendly, helpful attitude that focuses on the benefits for your child can convince them. You have the right to be there.

(Recent studies have shown that having parents present during a child's medical tests or operation doesn't detract from the success of the procedure; moreover, just being there helps to ease parents' anxiety. Since children are so sensitive to parental stress, seeing you more relaxed may in turn lessen your child's nervousness.)

  • Keep your child informed. A young child's head is filled with not-so-logical ideas about the world even at the best of times. When he's sick, misunderstandings about his illness and treatments can cause him severe stress and anxiety. Many children assume that the illness is their fault and the treatment is punishment. Make sure your child knows he's not to blame for his illness, and explain his condition to him on a level that he can understand. Pump the nurses and doctors for details about what your child will be going through, then give your child the complete rundown. Remember to be honest. If you tell a child that a shot won't hurt -- and it does -- you'll lose a lot of credibility.

Once a procedure is finished, it's helpful to remove the child from the site of the painful event, if possible, and to reassure him that it's over.

  • Show understanding. No matter how much comfort he receives, your child may still feel overwhelmed with uncertainty. He may express this by slipping back into long-lost habits such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, or baby talk. Take those behaviors in stride; chances are they won't last long. An older child may be most worried about being different from his friends. Reassure him that everyone gets sick at some time.
  • Stay calm. Your child will probably follow your example, no matter how you handle yourself. If you need to voice frustration with the nurses or doctors, do it out of your child's earshot.
  • Give him a piece of home. A favorite toy, blanket, or book can add comfort and normalcy to a strange situation; a favorite food, if it's allowed, is also helpful. Try distracting your child from his worries through some quiet talk or reading.

Further Resources

Pantell, Robert H. M.D., James F. Fries M.D., and Donald M. Vickery M.D. Taking Care of Your Child: A Parent's Illustrated Guide to Complete Medical Care, Eighth Edition. 2009. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

References

National Child Traumatic Stress Network. At the Hospital: Helping My Child Cope. http://www.chop.edu/export/download/pdfs/articles/traumatic-stress-pdf-cpts-child.pdf

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