Child Life Specialists Can Help Your Child

Nurse helping boy in hospital bed Nurse helping boy in hospital bed

Child life specialists work as a part of the multi disciplinary health care team to help make a child’s stay in the hospital as positive as possible. Child life specialists have expertise in:

The hospital experience can be very upsetting for children. Giving children information and ways of coping with stress helps them to be more in control of their experience. A child life specialist can help.

What does a child life specialist do?

Child life specialists help children and parents understand the hospital environment and prepare for procedures and surgery. A child life specialist can:

  • help prepare a child for surgery, medical procedures, or tests
  • explore coping strategies for children to use during procedures such as blood work
  • help distract a child during procedures
  • coordinate developmental play and treatment activities
  • provide infant stimulation for developmental growth
  • provide social and emotional support to patients, siblings, or other family members
  • help normalize the hospital for children

When you meet, the child life specialist will discuss your needs and your child's needs, answer any questions you may have, and explain any procedures. She will ask about any other hospital experiences your child may have had, and whether these were good or bad. This will affect how your child copes now.

Some child life specialists use puppets to speak to kids and play the part of the patient. (For example, the puppet may have a chest tube or a blood pressure cuff.) They also use picture books with non-threatening images to show stages of a procedure and medical equipment. Their strategies take into account the different ways and speed at which different children learn.

Later, the child life specialist may see your child as he is being prepared for procedures or surgery. She may help to calm him down if he is upset, or if he simply needs more support. She will use strategies like blowing bubbles, counting, listening to music, and deep breathing to help relax your child. She may also see your child after the procedure just to see how things went.

In addition to all these activities, child life specialists also operate playrooms and organize activities such as movies and games to keep older children occupied during their hospital stay. The child life specialist may also plan special events like birthday parties.

How can a child life specialist help you?

Sometimes parents just need another explanation of their child's condition. Or, you may want to know about stress your child will feel after the procedure, how your child will cope with going back to school, or how he should discuss the situation with his peers.

The child life specialist will:

  • tell you what to expect
  • help address your concerns
  • discuss coping strategies and pain management
  • share some suggestions about how to talk to your child about his condition
  • suggest what items (like toys or teddy bears) you should bring to comfort your child during the hospital stay

Child life specialists also serve as advocates for you. If you do not understand something, she will get you the information. Or if you have a special need or request, she will do her best to accommodate it. And because she will have spent time with your child before the procedure, she will be in a good position to help make sure that your child’s developmental needs are being met over the course of the treatment. This may involve having your child referred to other professionals (for example, a physiotherapist) if necessary.

Why is it worth meeting with a child life specialist?

A visit with a child life specialist is very valuable, even if you and your child have been through a procedure before. Your needs may have changed since then, and your child will likely have different coping and information needs as well. A child who is six, for example, will want to know more about his treatment than a child who is four. A teen may want fairly complex information.

It is a good idea to bring any of your child's siblings to the meeting as well. This can help prepare them for their sibling's operation and help address any fears they may have. The ultimate goal of the child life specialist is to make the hospital experience as positive as possible for you and your family.

For more information or to refer a patient, please ask your nurse or a patient information clerk to contact the child life specialist for your unit.

Key points

  • A child life specialist has expertise in child development, children’s reactions to hospitalization, and the importance of play.
  • Child life specialists can help your child cope with procedures and hospitalization.