by Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD
Being in the hospital with babies or young children who are sick or injured can be extremely stressful and scary for parents. It can be overwhelming to watch a child get stitches, an IV, surgery, a blood draw, or another invasive procedure. Not knowing exactly what is wrong can make things even more worrisome. When adults are in the hospital, nurses take care of them. However, when babies are in hospitals, parents take care of them. It is parents who change diapers, bathe, feed, burp, rock, give medicines, clean up vomit, and calm down babies. This article describes ways parents can make the emotional and physical stressors of a hospital stay with little ones a little less burdensome.
Hospitals can be dreary, sad, stressful, or boring. Music can change that. A patient in the next room may be vomiting loudly, moaning, or screaming. Music can muffle sounds from other rooms and can cheer up babies or young children, the hospital staff, and yourself.
Write down what the doctor says
If you stay overnight with your baby in the hospital, write down each doctor’s name and what he or she says. Write down your questions too. Your brain is likely to be fuzzy from so little sleep or anxiety. If you leave the room, have the person staying with your baby write down what each medical person says while you are gone.
Keep your strength up
Sleep when you can, try to eat regular snacks and meals, and drink a lot of water. There’s an endurance component to hospital stays with young children, as if you’re in a marathon.
Ask for what you need
The hospital often has items that you might need, but they may not give them to you until you ask. You might ask for a pacifier, a special type of bottle or formula, scrubs for you (in case you get spit up on), sponge bath supplies for baby, certain types of familiar baby food, toys, books, dishwashing soap for breast pump parts, or other things.
Prepare with talking and books if possible
If you know that your child is going to be in the hospital, it may be helpful to explain to them what to expect. You might talk about concrete things such as the robe and bracelet they will wear, what the hospital bed will look like, the tray that will go over their bed, or some of the procedures they might get.
Break the rules
You can ask the hospital staff if you can take your baby or child for a short walk outside. You can sleep next to them. You know best what your child needs.
Bring the familiar
Bringing a familiar sound machine, lovey, teddy bear, children’s book, rattle, sippy cup, or pacifier from home can be very helpful in the hospital. If kids can’t focus on a book because of pain, anesthesia, or other issues, they may want to watch their favorite show, cuddle, or just hang out.
Although nurses are expected to take vitals at regular intervals, this can be terrible when you have a baby who is hard to get to sleep. You can ask the nurse if they can leave you be for a few hours so your baby can get some rest. Also, if a nurse is having trouble getting an IV in, taking blood pressure, or doing another procedure that is simply not working, you can ask them to hold off and try again after your child has calmed down. You may also ask if you can get a more experienced or different nurse who may have better rapport with your child.
Ask people to visit
Ask family members or close friends to visit. If you are in the hospital and your partner is home with your other children, it can be lonely. It can also be hard to take a shower or even go to the bathroom. Having visitors can help you have time to eat a meal, grab a shower, or take a little break from holding the baby. You might even walk down to the gift shop or the lobby to get out of the room for a bit. It can also help to have the emotional support of loved ones. If you have no one to visit, many children’s hospitals have volunteers who will come by your room to give you a brief respite.
Debrief and heal
A hospital stay can be traumatic. Telling your story to friends or family help you process the experience. Going for a walk and picturing the stress leaving your body through your arms and legs can be healing. You may want to meditate, talk to a counselor, or journal about the experience. If your child recovers well, celebrate with a ritual such as taking them to the zoo or out for breakfast. Another ritual might be to send thank you cards to exceptional doctors or nurses, people who visited you, or others who supported you.
Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD, mom to three, is a counselor for individuals and couples in Chicago’s western suburbs. She specializes in counseling for parents of babies and young children. www.erinleyba.com or firstname.lastname@example.org