Kids Health Info

Preparing your child for hospital

  • A visit to hospital can be frightening for a person of any age, but especially for children. Here are some ideas and information to help your child before, during and after a hospital visit.

    What to tell your child before coming to hospital

    Tell your child honestly and truthfully why they need to come to hospital. If your child is under six years of age, tell your child a couple of days beforehand. If they are more than six years old, tell them a week or two beforehand. Telling your child before coming into hospital gives them time to prepare by asking questions and talking with you and others. Use simple words your child will understand.

    If you are not sure what to say, or how to answer questions, you can call the hospital and ask to speak to an educational play therapist for advice on (03) 9345 9300.

    Be careful about using humour or making jokes about going to hospital with your child.  Joking around with adults can lighten up a potentially stressful situation. In children however, humour has not yet developed in the same way and jokes in this situation can become confusing or frightening.

    Educational Play Therapy

    The Educational Play Therapy Department runs a pre-admission program. You can make an appointment to come and meet an educational play therapist with your child.

    Through play, the educational play therapist will help your child understand what they can expect when they come into hospital. They can also explain certain things to you.

    Educational play therapists will show you the areas of the hospital that your child will visit during their stay.  This will help to make the surroundings feel more familiar. They will show your child any dressings, plasters, splints, IV drips and other equipment that may be present before or after surgery or a procedure, and explain their purpose through play. Your child will also be prepared for having an anaesthetic (going to sleep), once again through play and demonstration. See the following link for more information about anaesthetics

    Practical tips and ideas

    • Depending on the age of your child, give them plenty of time for 'hospital play'. You can get them to do things like bandaging a teddy, listening to family member's heartbeats, practising taking medicine.
    • Read books together about going to hospital. Your local library, school, kindergarten or child care centre may be able to help. You could also visit RCH Shop and Kids Health Info in Main Street on Ground floor (Beach) of the hospital.
    • Be prepared for your child to ask the same questions several times. Each time you answer them, they will be absorbing a little more information, as well as getting reassurance from you.
    • Plan what you will take with you into hospital:
      • a favourite doll, blanket, teddy or other comfort item;
      • a favourite activity, or maybe a new one especially for hospital;
      • pyjamas and toiletries (for both of you, if you intend to stay overnight with your child);
      • photos of family members and pets at home.
    • Tell your child's school, kindergarten or childcare centre about the admission to hospital. They will also be able to help prepare your child and, for longer hospital admissions, work with the hospital to ensure your child stays in touch. You could also give them a copy of this factsheet.
    • Reassure your child that you will be coming and staying with them. Usually, you will be able to stay with your child until they are asleep (have an anaesthetic) before their surgery. You can also be with them in recovery after the operation. (See Kids Health Info factsheet RCH operation and recovery room).

    During your child's hospital stay

    • Remember to take breaks and look after yourself.  This will help you to be better able to provide support and care for your child. Remember, this can also be a scary and tiring experience for a parent.
    • Do as much as you feel comfortable with in caring for your child. For example, helping to shower/bathe, feed, cuddle and play with your child on the ward, as well as going with them for medical procedures, tests or treatments. Feel free to speak to your child's nurse about how much you want to be involved.
    • Usually, you will be able to stay overnight in the hospital ward with your child. This will usually be in a sofa bed or a reclining chair next to your child's bed.
    • Parents can be with their child at all times on the ward. Ask the ward staff about visiting times (for other family members and friends). You will have a phone near your child's bed so that others can speak to you or your child while they are in hospital.
    • If you require extra support or need time away from the bedside, you can speak to your nurse or ward clerk about our volunteers service. You can also take time-out to relax in the Family Hub.

    When your child goes home

    • It is not unusual for a child to show some behaviours that are different to normal when they leave hospital. For example, they might be clingy, attention seeking or have 'babyish' behaviours, (like sucking their thumb) which they had previously grown out of. A visit to hospital is a big event in a child's life, even if it is only for a day procedure. Stick to your usual routines and give them some time, patience and understanding. Your child will soon return to their normal self.
    • Siblings may also be clingy or show attention-seeking behaviours. It has been different for them too, so allow time for their questions and also try to involve them in events.
    • Again, allow your child plenty of time to 'play' being in hospital. They have more information and experience now, and need to play out these experiences to make sense of and cope with them.

    Key points to remember

    • Be honest about telling your child why they need to come to hospital.
    • Involve them in the preparations for hospital. For example, help them with packing their bag or choosing new pyjamas to bring to hospital.
    • Allow plenty of time for play and questions about coming to hospital.
    • Talk to your child's school, kindergarten or child care centre because they can help you too.
    • Allow plenty of time for readjustment when your child returns home again.
    • NEVER threaten your child with a return to hospital as a punishment for behaviours you do not like.

    For more information


    Developed by RCH Educational Play Therapy. First published July, 2008. Reviewed and updated October 2010

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This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.