Sick children in hospital: How to help, what to do

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Hospitalization may interfere with a child's normal development. Learn ways to help your child cope including play, familiar objects and planning ahead.

Key points

  • A stay in the hospital can be stressful for children, teenagers and their families.
  • How a child is affected depends on their age, temperament and condition.
  • Parents can help their child have a more positive experience.
  • There are many resources in the hospital to help a child during their stay.

How children's lives are affected by a stay in hospital

A stay in the hospital can be difficult for a child at any age. Illness and hospital stays are both stressful. They disrupt a child's life and can interfere with normal development.

While they are in hospital, children may miss their friends and family. They may be bored, or they may be afraid. Children may not understand why they are in the hospital, or they may have false beliefs about what is happening to them.

If you understand what your child may be feeling, you will feel like you will be able to help your child more. This page discusses how you can help your child get through a stay in the hospital.

How hospital stays affect children at different ages

A hospital stay will affect different children in different ways, depending on age, the reason for their hospitalization and temperament. Temperament is how your child reacts to new or unfamiliar situations. For example, you might know your child to be easy-going, or more shy or unsure in new situations. Keep reading to learn how to help with some of these issues.

Birth to 12 months (1 year old)

  • Babies at this age usually develop many new skills. Being at the hospital sometimes does not allow them to practice these skills. These skills may include rolling, sitting, crawling and walking.
  • Babies may not get enough sensory stimulation, for example music, sunlight, body positions, touch and toys.
  • If the baby's family is not able to stay often or able to hold the baby, the baby's relationship with people may be affected.

12 months to 24 months (1 year to 2 years old)

  • Children continue to develop new skills. Opportunities to develop these skills may be limited by illness.
  • Daily routines are different and so sleeping and eating patterns can change while your child is in hospital. Once your child is home again and back to familiar routines and surroundings, those eating and sleeping patterns will return to normal.
  • Children are developing trust in their caregivers. This can be difficult at the hospital, because there are many people involved with the child's care during what are often stressful circumstances.
  • Being away from family is very stressful, because children at this age are often fearful of strangers.
  • Children of this age often do not fully understand why they are in hospital.

2 years to 5 years

  • Being away from home and familiar routines is stressful.
  • Children may be afraid they will be hurt by hospital procedures.
  • Children may believe they did something wrong and that is why they are now in the hospital.
  • These children may know more about their bodies, but their understanding is still limited.
  • Language skills are developing fast, but children may misunderstand words they hear.

5 years to 12 years

  • Being away from home, school and friends is often stressful.
  • Fear of needles and pain is common.
  • Fears about surgery, for example falling asleep and pain after surgery, are common.

12 years and older

  • Being away from home, school and friends is often stressful.
  • Privacy is often important
  • Teenagers may be more aware of and concerned with long-term effects of illness.

How parents can help a child in hospital

There are many ways you can help your child cope with the stresses of a stay in hospital. The less stress and anxiety your child has, the better their recovery from illness will be. Here are some ideas.

Getting ready for the hospital

If a hospital stay is planned, you can help your child get ready for the experience ahead of time. How you prepare your child will depend on their age. Talk to the doctors, nurses, social workers or child life specialist about how to prepare your child. Many hospitals have programs to help with this.

Keep in mind that you are a role model for your child's behaviour. If a parent shows fear and sadness at a child's hospitalization, this encourages the child to feel the same way.

Talking with your child

Talk to your child about any fears, anxieties and other concerns they may have. Do not lie to your child about what will happen. Give them simple explanations they can understand. Answer the questions they ask. It is okay not to have an answer.


Familiar faces are reassuring. Visits from caregivers, especially parents, will help your child stay connected to their world outside the hospital. If visits are not possible, phone calls and Internet chats are good too.

Familiar objects from home

Bring favourite things from home, such as toys and stuffed animals. This will help comfort your child.


As much as possible, children in hospital should be encouraged to play. Play can take a child's mind away from pain, anxiety and illness in general. Play also helps a child stay stimulated. This encourages normal child development. Play can involve toys, books, games, puzzles, and arts and crafts.

Play can also be organized at the hospital. Often this is done by social workers and child life specialists. Talk to your nurse about this.

Last updated: November 6th 2009