How child life specialists can help your child

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Learn how a child life specialist can help make your child's hospital experience as positive as possible.

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, and better understand their medical experiences/journey.

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 difficult and confusing for children. Giving children developmentally appropriate information and ways of coping with stress helps them to be more in control of their experience. Child life specialists use evidence-based therapeutic interventions to ensure these important psychosocial needs are met through a child’s illness or treatment.

What does a child life specialist do?

Child life specialists help children and parents understand the hospital environment and prepare for procedures, surgery and inpatient stays. 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
  • provide education about diagnosis and different parts of treatment
  • 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. They will ask about any other hospital experiences your child may have had, and what these experiences were like. This will affect how your child copes now.

Child life specialists will use the five senses to explain to kids what they are going to experience, what they might see, smell, hear, taste and feel. They may offer medical play opportunities to a child using real or play medical equipment, such as a doll with an intravenous (IV) line or a blood pressure cuff. Child life specialists also use picture books, videos or slide shows on a tablet with child-friendly images to show stages of a procedure and medical equipment. Their strategies take into account the different ways children learn and provide children with information that helps them feel more of a sense of control.

Prior to a procedure or surgery, child life specialists can provide support in helping your child stay calm, using strategies like blowing bubbles, counting, listening to music and deep breathing to help relax your child. They can also provide guidance to you on the best ways you can support your child leading up to a procedure or surgery, and they may visit your child after the procedure just to see how things went.

Child life specialists want to make sure kids continue to get to be kids, even in the hospital. They can arrange to have a child life assistant or volunteer provide play opportunities for your child, as well as make sure there are activities to keep your child engaged and occupied during their hospital stay. They know that distraction through play helps in the healing process, and there are so many fun things for patients to do while at the hospital.

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, how to talk to your other children about what is happening or how your child can discuss their medical situation with their 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 their condition
  • suggest what items (like toys or teddy bears) you should bring to comfort your child during the hospital stay
  • provide resource suggestions that you can use to talk to all of your children, including siblings at home

Child life specialists also serve as advocates for you and your child, making sure you are an active participant in the medical journey. As they get to know your child, they 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, art or music therapists) if it would be helpful.

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 or have had previous hospitalizations. Your needs may have changed since then; and, as your child gets older, they will likely have different coping and information needs as well. A child who is six, for example, will want to know more about their treatment than a child who is four. A teen may want more detailed information, , but everyone has unique needs and preferences at any age.

It can be helpful for siblings to be provided with age-appropriate information as well, whether that means bringing them along to the hospital or having a child life specialist provide you with tips on what information to share with them at home. This can help address any fears your other children may have as well. The ultimate goal of the child life specialist is to make the hospital experience less confusing and 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.

Last updated: April 2nd 2024