About three or four days before admission to Sutter Children’s Center, Sacramento, start talking to your preschooler about what he or she can expect at the hospital. Preschoolers are able to understand simple explanations such as, "the doctor is going to fix your heart," or "the doctor needs to do a test to see why your head hurts." They may have questions about the hospital experience and may have fears about pain and separation from parents. It is important to answer their questions simply and honestly. Children are less anxious when they know they can trust the people around them to answer their questions honestly and to tell them what will be happening. Books are a good source of preparation for the preschooler. Allow questions and comments from the child while reading and looking at pictures together.
It is very common for preschoolers to misunderstand why they have to go to the hospital. They may think they have done something wrong and that going to the hospital is a punishment. Giving them clear reasons can help reduce any guilt, fear or thoughts that they somehow caused their medical problem.
It is important for the preschooler to help pack his or her suitcase and to bring any kind of security item such as a blanket, pillow or favorite toy. If your preschooler has brothers and sisters, pack photos of them as well as of favorite pets.
Dramatic play is a big part of most preschoolers’ lives. Many children like to pretend to be mommy, daddy or another adult. Playing doctor and nurse before hospitalization can be comforting to your child. This can be done with your child's own dolls or stuffed animal. Allow your child to express feelings and observe any misconceptions, fears or concerns he or she may have.
No matter how much preparation you do, hospitalization can still be very stressful for a preschooler. Your child may have behavioral responses to the stress and not have the words to express anger, frustration or sadness. They often let us know their feelings through their behaviors. These behaviors may include temper tantrums, refusing to do necessary things, excessive whining and crying and being very demanding. You can help your child by acknowledging their feelings, (for example, "I know you are angry, but I cannot let you throw that") and by giving choices whenever possible.
Don’t be surprised if your preschooler becomes very angry at you. This is usually confusing, because you are not the cause for their hospitalization. However, your child knows he or she can trust you the most, knows that you will still love him or her and feels comfortable enough with you to express his or her real feelings. Please feel free to discuss your child's behavior with a Child Life Specialist.
For more information, or to schedule a pre-admission tour and preparation, call the Child Life Program at (916) 887-0500.