Child life specialists make hospitals less scary

March 10, 2016 Providence Health Team

Four-year-old Emma* was not looking forward to getting poked by another needle. During her stay at The Children’s Hospital at Providence in Alaska, where she was being treated for a gastrointestinal issue, she had already endured several needle sticks. Now her IV had stopped working and she needed another one. Noting Emma’s rising anxiety, the nurse made a call.

That’s how Emma and her mother met Joanna Davis, a certified child life specialist at the hospital. Davis sat down next to Emma’s bed and calmly explained that she was a “teacher of hospital things.” She talked to Emma about why the IV was important and explained the purpose of the different parts of the procedure: the “big stretchy rubber band” that would “help make her veins stand up big and tall,” the clear, flexible “medicine straw” that would deliver her medicine, and the numbing cream that would “help her skin fall asleep” while they put the tube in. Then she and Emma teamed up to put an IV into the arm of Emma’s teddy bear.

When the nurse entered the room, Davis showed her a way to breathe that would relax her body and help her feel calmer. She and Emma practiced a few times, and when the moment came, they breathed through it together – and then it was done. “I did it! I did it!” Emma shouted, “and I didn’t even cry!”

Davis lives for moments like that. As a certified child life specialist, helping kids cope with potentially stressful hospital experiences is both her primary goal and her biggest reward. “It feels so good to be able to take what could be a negative experience for a child and her family and to turn it into something positive,” she says.

Easing stress and relieving fears

A few months after their hospital experience, Davis ran into Emma and her mother. “Her mom said to me, ‘You’re the one who taught Emma how to breathe!’ She said that Emma still does that at home when she gets into a stressful situation – ‘she focuses on her breathing and it helps her through it.’”

For Davis, that’s one of the best perks of the job: “To be able to teach something that not only helps a child in the moment, but will continue to be helpful to her for the rest of her life.”

Data backs need for child life specialists

An extensive review of the medical literature by the Child Life Council backs up Davis’ experience. It found that when certified child life specialists help prepare children for medical procedures, “most…experience significantly lower levels of fear and anxiety compared to children who are not prepared.” In addition, “Preparation also promotes long-term coping and adjustment to future medical challenges.”

Helping kids prepare for procedures is just one of the ways that Davis and other certified child life specialists support children and families in the hospital. Other ways include:

  • Teaching kids about what they can expect to see and experience in the hospital
  • Explaining diagnoses in a way that children can understand
  • Using play to distract youngsters’ attention during procedures
  • Teaching relaxation techniques to help children and adolescents through difficult moments
  • Supporting bereavement when a parent or child nears the end of life

With a sensitive touch and a lot of specialized training – including a bachelor’s degree in a child development field and 400 to 500 hours of internship training – child life specialists offer compassionate support during some of life’s biggest challenges.

Creating positive memories

Recently, Joanna was called to help with a dying father who had young children. His two youngest boys, 5 and 7, had not yet seen their dad in the ICU. Davis talked with the boys to prepare them for what they would see when they walked into the room, and then they went in together. At first, the boys were afraid to approach their father, but that soon changed.

“As part of our bereavement support,” says Davis, “we offer memory-making activities.” She had brought fabric paints and pillowcases with her, and started gently brushing paint onto the father’s hand. Then she pressed his hand against a pillowcase and made a handprint. Soon all the kids wanted handprints of their dad.

“They started helping me brush on the paint, hold their dad’s hands against the fabric, and then gently wash his hands,” she says. “It changed the whole feel of the room – the youngest boy finally climbed up on the bed and snuggled with his dad, and you could tell that everyone was just enjoying this time that they got to have with their father.”

Shannon Shea, manager of Family Support Services at The Children’s Hospital at Providence in Alaska, encourages families to ask about child life services if they find themselves in a hospital with a child who could benefit from some extra support. Many Providence hospitals offer these services. “Our child life specialists are absolutely beloved by families,” she says. “They are a huge part of the way we wrap services around a family to take care of them while they’re here.”

*We changed Emma’s name in this article to protect her privacy.

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