The truth is, it’s going to hurt. But there are things you can do to ease the pain.

We’re talking about a child’s hospital stay.

You can’t save a kid from all the pain and indignity that come with a visit to the hospital. But you can lessen the trauma by following two guiding principles.

First: Be prepared.

And second? Be honest.

“So much of the distress that’s associated with hospitals is due to the child’s fear and the parents’ uncertainty around how to manage that,” says Dr. Robert Needlman, the pediatrican at Cleveland’s MetroHealth Medical Center who updates “Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care.”

“If you can reduce those factors, what’s leftover is often not so horrible.”

How do you overcome that fear and uncertainty?

Start with a child life specialist, if your hospital has one. Most big-city hospitals do. And more and more suburban ones are becoming aware of how helpful they can be.

Here’s their advice on how to get your child back from the hospital with as few emotional scars as possible:

1. Do your homework. Before you have that face-to-face talk with the little guy about his trip to the hospital, meet face-to-face with his doctor or doctor’s assistant so you can learn as much as possible about what will happen. You can’t explain it to your child if you don’t understand it.

This will help alleviate your anxiety, too, says Rakhi Hoffer, a child life specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. That’s important, because you can transfer that anxiety to your children.

2. Decide when to talk. Pick a quiet place with no distractions and no siblings around to interrupt. Then, remember, age makes a difference.

With toddlers, talking one or two days before the visit is OK because they don’t understand the concept of time. For preschoolers, three to five days is good. For others, it depends on when children start asking questions or when they first learn they’ll be going to the hospital.

If surgery is involved, explain with basic, general statements what will happen before, during and after. But keep it simple.

“Very few times do children ask the gory details of surgery,” Hoffer says. “What they’re really asking is, “Is it going to hurt?”‘

Be careful to explain the anesthesia. “The doctor will give you special medicine to help your body fall asleep” is a good phrase to use. Don’t tell a child she’ll be “gassed” or “put to sleep.” Kids can confuse that with what they’ve heard about euthanized pets.

3. Ask a few questions of your own. Something as open-ended as “what do you think is going to happen?” gives children a chance to express their anxieties and reveal any misconceptions.

“It allows an open conversation,” Hoffer says, “a chance for them to talk about their fears. And it allows you to find out what the child really needs to help him through this experience.”

It also allows you to talk about your feelings.

“It’s OK for parents to admit that they’re scared, too,” Hoffer says. “But then reassure them. Say “Mom and Dad are always going to be there with you.”‘

4. Tell the truth. Honesty is critical.

“Oftentimes, parents think they’re protecting their child by withholding information,” says Toni Millar, former director of the Family and Child Life Department at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. “That doesn’t work. Children often think they did something bad that caused their illness, that it’s worse than it really is, that they’re going to die like people on TV.” Giving them accurate information can put them at ease and it helps with that all-important issue, trust.

Don’t say “This isn’t going to hurt at all,” says Estelle Argie-Hawley, director of Child Life and Education at MetroHealth Medical Center. Instead, “Tell the child “I really don’t know how this is going to feel, but I know the doctor is going to take good care of you and give you medicine so it doesn’t hurt.”‘

5. Tour the hospital. Your child will get to see the TVs, the tables that let them eat breakfast in bed, all the things that bring fun to a hospital stay. Seeing these can make the experience a little more concrete and a little less frightening.

6. Line up help. Ask a close friend or Grandma to come stay with siblings, so their routine is disrupted as little as possible. And designate someone to be the “information giver.” That way, you only have to place one call a day with updates. Some hospitals will also help you set up a Web site with patient information that’s accessible to those who have a password.

7. Spend the night. “I think for the child, it’s probably the most important thing,” Hoffer says. And it’s not just young children who want their parents by their side. It’s true for teenagers, too, who may not be quick to admit it.

8. Prepare the other children. Again, honesty is the best policy. Explain what’s going to happen, that you’ll be gone and why. And tell them you’ll call to check on them every day. If they’re old enough, explain if and when they can visit.

9. Make the child feel special. Let her pick out a favorite pair of pajamas, a game, a blanket or movie to take to the hospital. This gives her some control over the situation. It’s also nice to go shopping before she heads off to the hospital, even if it’s just for a new toothbrush – anything that will help her feel special.

10. Trust your instincts and be your child’s advocate. You know your child better than anyone else. If you think he isn’t getting enough pain medication, tell the doctor or nurse, Argie-Hawley says. If you think he’ll do better if you’re by his side during an MRI, say so.

Child life specialists suggest these books to help prepare a child for a hospital stay:

– “Clifford Visits the Hospital,” by Norman Bridwell, for 3- to 8-year-old patients.

– “Curious George Goes to the Hospital,” by Margret Rey and H.A. Rey, for 4- to 8-year-old patients.

– “Franklin Goes to the Hospital,” by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark, for toddler through preschool-age patients.

– “Going to the Doctor,” by T. Berry Brazelton, for elementary school-age patients.

– “Going to the Hospital,” by Fred Rogers, for toddler through preschool-age patients.

– “When Molly was in the Hospital,” by Debbie Duncan and Nina Ollikainen, for 3- to 7-year-old brothers and sisters of patients.

– “When Your Child Goes to the Hospital,” a booklet by Fred Rogers, for parents.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.