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Preparing for A Hospital Stay

Answering your child's questions before they come to the hospital


Every child reacts differently to the idea of a surgery or hospital stay. Much depends on his or her age. These helpful tips can make a hospital stay less stressful for both you and your child.

If your child is also scheduled for surgery, additional information is available here:

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How to prepare infants and toddlers for a hospital stay


Babies and toddlers under the age of two have not developed words and concepts about procedures or when they will occur. Children this young need a familiar caregiver and their favorite toys for comfort and security. Prepare yourself for vocal expressions of their feelings and remember this is normal. Plan ahead for times when waiting or quiet activities will be needed and have ready toys, coloring books and videos.


How to prepare preschoolers age 3 to 5 for a hospital stay


Children at this age are curious and want to know what will happen. They do not have well-developed ideas of time. Talk with them about what will happen one to three days before the event. Keep explanations simple and short. Too many details may confuse. Select words carefully as many medical terms can have a double meaning. For example, "dye" used in cardiac catheterization may be interpreted as “die.” Some words are scary and can increase fears. Instead of “cut,” use phrases like "make an opening" to describe events in a neutral fashion. Use play and common activities to prepare for a hospital stay. Books, medical kit toys and videos about doctor visits and hospital stays can all be helpful. We recommend:

  • Big Bird Goes to the Hospital (video and book)
  • Fisher Price medical play kit
  • Going to the Hospital: First Experiences (Mr. Rogers)
  • Curious George Goes to the Hospital
  • Franklin Goes to the Hospital
  • Clifford Visits the Hospital

Help your child pack a bag with favorite toys or other objects so that he or she has a sense of security while in the hospital.

Be sure to ask what your child thinks. Many preschoolers fantasize and use their imagination about things they do not understand. Their imaginings may be much worse than actually talking about scary or painful things. This age group is excellent for the Children's Pre-surgical Tour, as it lets them practice the preparation for surgery (try on surgical masks, anesthesia, etc.) Please contact our Child Life Department at 703-776-3906 for more information.

Preschoolers really want to know you will be there for support and comfort. Plan how you will care for yourself while your child is in the hospital. For the two-parent family, take turns staying with your child every other night or switch off between day and night shift. This allows you to maintain your own health and sleep levels as you care for your child's emotional needs. For the single parent family, ask other family members or friends whom your child knows and trusts to stay with your child so you can have a break from caregiving.


How to prepare children age 6 to 12 for a hospital stay


Children this age enjoy learning and using their minds to understand more detailed explanations of events, procedures and their own bodies. They understand concepts of time and the idea of before, during and after. They can follow more complex instructions that include steps. Although high language skills are available to them, medical lingo needs to be "translated" into real words.

This age group still may experience "irrational fears" such as IVs being worse than surgery. Learning in advance various relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and guided imagery help the child gain control over his or her fears. We recommend Guided Imagery for Stressful Times by Diane L. Tusek, RN, which is available from the cardiovascular surgery office.

This age group can benefit from the Children's Pre-Surgical Tour to learn more about the surgical process. Please contact our Child Life Department at 703-776-3906 for more information.


How to prepare teens age 13 to 18 for a hospital stay


Teenagers need clear answers about what and why things are happening to them. They need to be included in the discussions about their care with doctors and nurses. Teens are usually most concerned about how procedures, hospital stays and surgery will affect their appearance, their daily activities and their relationship with friends. Plan to include visits and calls from their friends. Be sure to think of clothes to help maintain privacy. Consider bringing books, videos, iPods, etc., for entertainment and to prevent boredom. Arrange schoolwork so they do not fall behind their peers.

Teens may act grown up, but they still want to know you will be there through any difficult times. Relaxation techniques learned in advance are helpful. We recommend Guided Imagery for Stressful Times by Diane L. Tusek, RN, which is available from the cardiovascular surgery office.