Ways to Help When a Child is in the Hospital   

Ways to Help When a Child is in the Hospital

Katie looking over and comforting her hospitalized baby after surgery.

By: Katie Woehnker

50 days. 1,200 hours. 72,000 minutes. That is how long my daughter was in the hospital before we could bring her home after birth.

Close up of hospitalized baby's feet, with a heart monitor wrapped around their foot. Baby in the NICU.

Diagnosed early in pregnancy, my daughter had an extremely rare birth defect that has led to many surgeries and intensive care. Born prematurely at 33 weeks, her 4 lb. body had two major surgeries and was sustained on a breathing tube for 30 days before she could take her first breath on her own. It was 30 days before we could hold her for the first time. It was 72,000 minutes of prayers at the bedside and staying hopeful that she would soon be well. 

When your child is sick or hospitalized, there are endless emotions you can experience – anxiety, fear, guilt, depression, isolation. While it can feel hopeless and extremely lonely, that no one else can possibly understand how this feels – if you surround yourself with a core group of people who support you, it can take some burden off of your shoulders.

Looking back on my own experience, and connecting with some of our child life therapists at Hackensack Meridian Children’s Health, we’ve put together tips for friends and loved ones on how they can help when a child is in the hospital.

Make it known you are there to support them.

“To both the child and family, let them know that you are here to support them, and that you recognize how challenging it must be for them right now,” says Ellen Goldring, manager of Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy at Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center. “You can ask them if there’s anything you can do to help out with tasks at home, or if they just need to talk to someone.” 

“But also, don’t take it personally if the family isn’t reaching out to you. They are coping with a lot, and they may not have the emotional capacity to open up. Just let them know you are there if they need you,” Ellen adds.

My group was small but mighty – we surrounded ourselves with friends and family who would pray alongside us, and believe for a positive outcome, even when the odds were against us.

Help with tasks at home and help maintain routines for siblings.

Look for ways to support routines and structure for the patient and siblings. Children thrive on routine and consistency, so look for ways to maintain normalcy.

Trusted friends and family members can help by: 

  • Taking the kids to school, or making sure they get off the bus safely
  • Doing pickup and drop-off for sports and activities for the siblings
  • Walking the dog or taking care of pets at home
  • Setting up meals
  • Helping with weekly chores like cleaning, laundry or grocery shopping

Just listen, unless asked for your advice.

“If the caregiver or parent does reach out for emotional support, just listen, advice is helpful but sometimes just being a listener is more important,” says Ellen. “Let them express their feelings, and just allow for that.” 

You can mean well by offering your opinion, but it can be overwhelming to the parent who already has a lot of decisions to make. Medical professionals are there to provide clinical advice, your job is to support them.

Offer to help with phone calls and relaying messages.

“The parents can often feel they have to field all the phone calls — sharing updates with family and loved ones, managing child care arrangements or schooling; offer to help whenever appropriate,” says Beth Van Buskirk, manager of Child Life Services at K. Hovnanian Children's Hospital at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. 

It can be cumbersome to relay messages to multiple family members and friends about the status of their child’s care — if the child just went through treatment and is doing well, offer to share the news with the rest of their support group, if they are comfortable with you doing so.

Throughout my pregnancy and my daughter’s hospital stays and surgeries, our family and friends would anxiously wait for updates. When we had good news to share, it was wonderful to make those calls and texts, but many times, we would not get the news we’d hoped for. It was exhausting to recount all of the feedback the doctors provided, numerous times to each person. 

Reassure them not to feel guilty for taking time for self-care.

Parents can have a hard time leaving the bedside, especially if their child is admitted to the hospital. Offer to come stay with their child so they can take a walk, or go home to take a shower. 

“Reassure them not to feel guilty, whether it’s 10 minutes or a few hours, they need to prioritize their physical and mental health too,” says Beth.

Some of the best advice I received was from a friend who is a NICU nurse. She told me I had to leave my daughter’s bedside, eat meals, sleep, shower and go home. She had seen parents fall apart from lack of self care. Her advice felt as though it was permission to leave, ‘nurse’s orders.’ If I was a shell of a human being, I would be of no help to my daughter who needs me; I needed to make sure I took care of myself and prioritized my healing as well. 

Every situation is different, and depending on the age of the child, their condition and their length of stay in the hospital will determine how guardians can fit in self care, but it is important for all nonetheless. 

“The caregiver or parent needs to understand their own feelings, and find ways for self care, in whatever way works for them – that can be going down to get a cup of coffee or taking a walk outside,” says Ellen. 

Whether it’s from a birth defect, a chronic condition, an unexpected medical diagnosis, or an emergency situation, a child who is hospitalized needs their caretakers to be strong and feel supported. Be present, and offer to help however you can. 

Next Steps & Resources: 

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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