20 ways to help when a child is in the hospital

20 Hospital Tips

It is very hard on a family to have a child in the hospital, especially long term. It’s exhausting, emotionally and physically, heart –wrenching, stressful and isolating. My daughter spent the first 3 months of her life in the hospital – the longest three months of my life – and I don’t know how I’d have survived without the support of friends and family. Here are some tips for how to help when a child is in the hospital, or if it’s your child in a NICU or PICU or other hospital unit – here’s what you can tell your family and friends. Give us feedback on these or tell us some more ideas how people can help in the comments.

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  1. Go visit the hospital if possible and just keep the caregiver company. You’re not bothering them! If you can’t go to the hospital, text or call to check in on them. It can get very lonely. Just a text can mean more than you know.
  2. When you visit, talk about what is happening outside the hospital if the parent is up for hearing it. I felt like I was living in a bubble when I was there with my daughter. I have no idea what happened in the world for those three months because my whole world was procedures and doctors and worrying. It was a nice mental break when someone would discuss something other than what was happening in the hospital.
  3. Don’t drill the parent with endless questions. Yes, it’s ok to ask a few questions, but please don’t keep on asking for more and more information. Some of it a parent may not wish to share, and some of it is too hard to talk about.
  4. If you want to bring snacks (please do!), try to make a mix of some healthy and not-so-healthy. If a caregiver is staying at the hospital, chances are they are eating nothing but snack bar food, which gets pretty old. My very well-meaning mom brought me tons of chips and chocolate until I begged for something healthy, then she brought me nothing but salads for a week! A home cooked meal wrapped in plastic wrap would have been wonderful.
  5. It’s nice to bring some magazines, games or movies for the parent and child. Those long days can get really boring. If you want to bring a gift for the child, call ahead or check with the parent on guidelines. Some units have strict rules on what is allowed inside for cleanliness reasons. Some units do not allow flowers, so check on that as well.
  6. Try to convince the parent to leave the room and take a walk or leave the hospital for a while. I can’t say how important this is! Stay with the child so the parent feels that it’s ok to leave. Some hospitals actually require an adult to be in the room with children at all times. If that is the case, visit all the more! It can be very, very difficult if you’re required to stay in the room and can’t even leave to stretch your legs and get a cup of coffee.
  7. Ask if you can bring anything home for them. People would bring things to the hospital and I had only a very small area of the room to keep items. It got overwhelming. It was great when someone offered to take something away! I could send home stuff I wasn’t using.
  8. If someone is staying full time at the hospital, offer to bring some cosmetics like lotion, shampoo and conditioner, soap, a razor, floss, tampons and so on. Chances are they might have forgotten something or be running out, and shopping is not their main priority. If they can do laundry at the hospital, bring them a small container of detergent or offer to bring their laundry home and wash it. Bringing a cozy sweatshirt, a pair of super soft socks or a fleecy blanket is a nice way to offer some comfort.
  9. If a family has other children, offer to take the kids to do something special for the day. A special trip to the zoo, the movies or somewhere else can help a child feel special when they might be feeling neglected and forgotten. If you can afford to, pay for the outing. The family is probably buried under medical bills, or will be soon.
  10. Ask if you can help out at home, and when they say no, ask again. With life revolving around the hospital, simple tasks like doing laundry, cooking, cleaning, running to the grocery store, picking up kids from school or running errands could be just the help a family needs.
  11. Be emotionally supportive by listening and not offering advice. Don’t tell the family everything happens for a reason, that God has a plan, that things could be worse, that everything will be all right or the other clichés. There are no words that can comfort a parent at that point. Just tell them you know it must be very difficult for them, and then listen.
  12. Allow the parent to talk and cry if they want to without getting uncomfortable, trying to stop them crying or trying to leave. There were a few months there where I’d break into tears several times a day and it would make some people very uncomfortable. If that’s where they’re at, just listen and be supportive.
  13. Don’t compare your own situation or say you understand unless you have had a child in the hospital long term. You don’t understand. Really. I have a friend whose sister-in-law compared her child’s infected hangnail to my friend’s daughter spending months in the ICU. You can imagine they’re not so close anymore.
  14. If a doctor comes in during your visit, offer to leave. We had personal information we didn’t want shared with others, but when my guests stayed in the room, the doctor assumed it was ok to tell much more than we cared for others to hear. The parent doesn’t want to ask you to leave, so at least offer to wait outside and return when the doctor is done speaking.
  15. Ask the parents first if you’d like to share information about a child’s diagnosis or health information with others. Definitely don’t share it on social media and remind your children of the same. It’s very aggravating to find out that your child’s medical information was plastered on Facebook. Let the parents decide what to share.
  16. Ask the parent if they would like for you to update others on what is happening. I have a large family who were all very concerned about my daughter, but I just didn’t have the energy to call or email people to update them. Telling one family member what I would like passed on helped a lot. It kept people in the loop and took the pressure off of me answering a billion questions.
  17. Follow very strict hygiene when you visit. Thoroughly scrub your hands when you enter or leave the room, and stay away if you are sick. A little sniffle for you could become a life threatening illness for an already-struggling child. I had to repeatedly remind guests to wash their hands. I didn’t like doing it and some people were offended, as though I was calling them dirty. Please don’t make the parents remind you.
  18. Remember the child’s diagnosis and try to gain a basic understanding of what that means. When a parent has to keep reminding people of what is going on with their child, it feels as though people don’t care.
  19. If a child has a major test or surgery coming up, enter it into your phone and then text on that day just to let the family know you’re thinking of them. It really means a lot to get a brief message of support in those situations.
  20. If a child has to have surgery or lengthy test, ask the parents if can wait with them at the hospital during the surgery. There are few things worse than waiting on pins and needles by yourself for hours while you wait to hear how a surgery or test went.

Please comment below and share your experience with us, or give us a feedback about this article. If you think some tips are not included here, please let us know so that we could share them with the rest.