Being away from home is probably the most stressful part of hospitalization for a toddler. For this reason, two or three days before admission is ample time to explain the hospitalization process to your child. Children this young need only simple explanations.
In the hospital, toddlers benefit when at least one parent stays overnight with them. If you are able to stay, you can work out a plan with you child's nurse to allow you to continue caring for your child as much as possible (e.g., bathing, changing clothes and feeding). If you are unable to stay overnight, please give as much information as possible to other nursing staff regarding your child's routines, likes and dislikes, etc. This will aid in your child's adjustment to hospitalization.
Another way to prepare your toddler for hospitalization is through the use of books. there are several books for toddlers about hospitalization and emotions that my relate to being in a hospital. Books can usually be found at your local library, or, you may want to visit the St. Louis Children's Hospital Family Resource Center, a health information library staffed by healthcare professionals. You may call the center at 314.454.2350. Two or three days prior to admission is a good time to read books and discuss any questions. Young children may ask, "How long will I be there?", "Will it hurt?" or "Where will you be?" It is important answer these and any other questions honestly. Giving reassurances which are false or inaccurate are not helpful for children.
It is very important to let your toddler choose which toys, stuffed animal, blanket, etc. she wants to bring to the hospital. Also, if possible, let your child help you pack her suitcase.
Children respond differently to hospitalization depending on the length of stay, the procedures involved, and any recent stresses. Sometimes even a recent family move or the birth of a new baby can make it very stressful for your toddler to adjust to hospitalization.
Since it is difficult for the toddler to express her feelings, you may find that your child may cry and direct anger toward you while in the hospital. If you are not able to stay all day, it can be very upsetting to see your child cry the minute she sees you. However, this does not mean that you are upsetting your child. You are probably the only person with whom your child feels comfortable and secure enough to express her confused feelings. You are, in fact, the most important person for your child at that time. Your presence, comforting words and reassuring smile will help your child adjust to her new environment.
You will probably notice that your toddler's behavior may regress while in the hospital. If your child has recently been toilet trained, she may start wetting again. If she has recently started walking, she may not be as active in the hospital. Your toddler may refuse to eat and may have more tantrums than usual. These are all typical responses to hospitalization and are normal under these stressful conditions. The hospital staff is aware of these responses and realize they are normal for children of this age.
During your toddler's hospitalization, the long hours and stressful conditions may cause you to feel anxious or exhausted. Remember, it is important for you to take care of yourself in order to take the very best care of your child. Therefore, it may be helpful for you to take breaks during the day to nap, relax, catch up on work or visit with the rest of your family. The Child Life Services staff can help you with arranging breaks throughout the day.
If you have any questions or would like to speak to a Child Life Specialist before or during your toddler's hospitalization, please call Child Life Services at 314.454.6178.