From bright overhead lights and beeping monitors to unfamiliar faces in full medical gear and unfamiliar equipment, the hospital environment can be overwhelming and frightening for a child.
Hospitalization can cause sensory overload for anyone, but for children who’ve never experienced it before and those with sensory difficulties, the clinical setting can make treatment seemingly impossible. This is where child life specialists use their expertise to engage a child’s senses while giving them a sense of calm and control in unfamiliar surroundings.
Child life specialists integrate a child’s sensory experience into play and preparation daily. Through play therapy, medical role play and coping exercises, they are trained to preemptively prepare and engage the senses of the child to reduce the stress, anxiety and fear that comes with medical procedures and prolonged time spent in the hospital. Just like preparing for a Fourth of July fireworks display, these same coping tools can be used in a medical environment to make the experience more peaceful and less overwhelming.
Everyone can help children in this way! After you have gathered the information about what a hospital/clinic visit will entail, you can then begin to prepare your child at home. Using a medical play doctor kit, add real materials that your child may see at their visit (gloves, bandages, gauze, tape, syringes, cotton balls). Give your child time to explore and play with lots of opportunities to lead and make choices. They can decide what role they want to have (doctor, nurse, patient, parent), where and how to use the medical materials and how long to play for.
After they have played and explored for a bit, you can teach them what will occur at their upcoming appointment by describing what they will see, hear, smell, taste and feel while being mindful of giving them as many choices as possible.
“During the exam do you want to sit on my lap or by yourself?” or “Do you want to watch what the doctor is doing or look away?” are two great questions to open the sensory dialogue with your child, as it gives them autonomy during a situation where they have little to no control.
Next time your child has a doctors appointment or will need to visit a hospital, check out this support tool on our website.