When a child is in the hospital, life is disrupted. Inside those hospital walls, procedures, sounds of medical equipment, and a revolving door of bedside visitors can impact sleep, play, and normal routines.
I have been a Certified Child Life Specialist for 10 years and have worked in respected children’s hospitals in New York City and my hometown of Milwaukee. Certified Child Life Specialists use developmentally-appropriate play, medical education and preparation to help reduce fear, anxiety and pain for children and teens. We provide support to the whole family – empowering parents with language and tools to help their children cope and support siblings who may be having a difficult time with a disruption of their routine and separation from primary caregivers.
I launched www.doseofplay.com less than 2 years ago to continue to share tips and resources for families beyond the hospital walls. This fall I will launch my child life private practice in Savannah, which will provide in-home, community group, and parental web-based support to children and families.
As a Certified Child Life Specialist, I had the honor of making connections with countless families who have shared what their hospital stressors had been. Many are unique to their family or situation, but so many the same. Over the years, I’ve heard great tips and witnessed clever hacks that have helped ease the stress of hospitalization and made their stays more manageable. Often, it's the smallest of things that made their experience easier - one less straw on the camel’s back makes a dramatic impact on the child or family’s hospital experience. I have been grateful for the opportunity to pay it forward sharing these tips and hospital hacks with families overtime and now I'm excited to share hospital hacks to get better sleep and a dose of play with you!
Because we all wish we had more of it after our babies are born, let’s start with hospital hacks to get better sleep while in the hospital.
Hospital Hacks to Get Better Sleep…
- Eye masks to block out: lights in the room turning on with nursing assessments and care treatments, lights seeping in from the hallway when staff enter and exit, siren lights from outside.
- Ear plugs to sound out: machines beeping, chatter from hallways, babies crying, medical assessments and care.
- Mattress pad: aside from concern for their child, the #1 complaint from parents to me about being hospitalized was the unsatisfactory sleeping situation. Either the hospital didn't have beds/couches for parents or the pull-out couches were highly unsatisfactory. I saw a few savvy parents of children with chronic illnesses who had enough of the overnight discomfort and invested in mattress pads, extra blankets, and even some that brought air mattresses!
- White noise machine. Not just for the littles! I've used YouTube white noise videos in a pinch, but unfortunately you can't really use your phone for anything else while that app is open. Other music apps work, but of course do not function when you need to make phone calls. Plus, it’s good for you to be able to step out of the room or go home at times during longer stays.
- Lavender essential oil. Place a couple of drops on a cotton ball and inhale with deep slow breaths. Store in a closed container and do your research about which companies you can trust - ones that prove they test the purity of the oils. Please speak with nursing before attempting to bring in your personal oil diffuser, as children and staff may have sensitivities to particular scents and oil being diffused, in general. Some hospitals have policies prohibiting them. Another great idea is the scented plush, but know that children’s hospitals enforce safety rules of no toys (blankets or other items) for children under 1 year old to follow hospital policy and keep babies safe.
- Door sign. A whole lot of people come in and out of a child's room when hospitalized. Not only medical staff, but psychosocial support specialists and clinicians, food service, cleaning staff, volunteers, and visitors. Talk to your child's nurse. If it's disrupting sleep or coping, it might be appropriate for you to make a simple sign to ask visitors to check in with the nurse before knocking on the door/entering at designated times.
- Que up your favorite relaxation playlist or download some relaxation apps. I am most familiar with and like Relax Melodies.
Choosing a name for my services and business came easily to me, as play is really found at the core of the services we provide to children. When children are in the hospital, their routine, control and time for play can get threatened. We advocate for and use play to help normalize the scary, unfamiliar environment, establish a quick rapport with a child, distract from pain, and to teach children about the hospital, their bodies and how everyone is working together to help them.
Play is so important in early years that the American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP] released a clinic report in 2018 that “gives pediatric providers information they need to promote play and to prescribe play to young children at well visits.” It summarizes that the joy, shared communication, and harmonious serve and return from interactions of play help both parents and children regulate the body’s stress responses. This report from the organization of over 60,000 pediatric physicians’ states that in the times of adversity, play is especially important.
The AAP with the Association of Child Life Professionals concludes that child life services improve quality and outcomes in pediatric care, as well as the patient and family experience. In fact, the AAP.recommends “child life services be delivered as part of an integrated patient- and family-centered model of care and included as a quality indicator in the delivery of services for children and families in health care settings” (“Child Life Services”, 2014). Here are some life hacks for getting your child their recommended dose of play.
Hospital Hacks to Get a Dose of Play
- Bring a pack and play for a change of scenery for babies or toddlers that are confined to their room due to infection control.
- Secure iPad to the adjustable TVs (seen in ICU rooms) that can be positioned in air above their bed. For critically ill children, calming imagery or music can be played, they can watch their favorite shows and movies (YouTube clips), or a person can "play for the child" using an app the child is known to love.
- Use safe, non-critical medical items and other miscellaneous recycled items for dramatic play, games and art making to allow child control and to process their experience.
- Tape board games like Candyland to the adjustable ICU TVs for children critically ill, but still able and desiring to play! Instead of using the board pieces, each player uses a different colored dry-erase marker to mark the spot on the board. One version has the spinner as an alternative to the deck of cards, which can give a child a greater sense of control and a bit of "hands on" play with as little as movement from a finger required. Offer assistance as needed.
- Create your own medical themed card deck for the Headbanz game to familiarize children with medical equipment or health care professionals they meet in the hospital. Read more about my idea on www.doseofplay.com.
It goes without saying that having a child in the hospital can cause stress and anxiety. Remember to ask for help from family and friends and accept it when unsolicited. Take care of yourself and know that it’s more than okay to step away from the bedside to give yourself time to recharge. Ask your nurse or doctor to contact a Certified Child Life Specialist for support prior to and during your stay. Head to www.doseofplay.com to find more “hospital hacks” in a part 2 blog post and learn more about how child life services may support children in your home and community.
Dawn Klausmeier is a mom of three under 5 years old, a Certified Child Life Specialist and creator of doseofplay.com. Dawn is passionate about empowering children and families to cope the best they can when facing medical experiences. Find more tips, resources, and get to know her family @doseofplay on Instagram or @doseofplay.com on Facebook!
Child life services. (2000). Pediatrics, 106(5), 1156-1159. doi:10.1542/peds.106.5.1156
Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Michnick Golinkoff, R. (2018). The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics, 142(3), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2018-2058