Staying in hospital with your child – what you’ll need

If your child is going into hospital they will probably be staying on a children's cancer ward. These are usually friendly, positive places and staff will offer both you and your child plenty of help and support. But there are a few things you can do to help you prepare.

Preparing yourself for your child’s hospital stay

It is easy to only focus on your child as you get ready for a hospital stay. But it is important to prepare yourself as well.

Check practical things like which ward they will be staying in and what facilities are on offer. Find out how much time off you can get from work.

Think about what you want to pack – for both you and your child.

Understanding your child’s stay

The more you understand about your child’s hospital stay the easier it is to plan. Some of the things you need to know are:

  • What treatment they are having
  • What ward they will be on
  • What facilities there are
  • Whether you will be able to stay with them
  • When other family members can visit

It is okay to ask if you have any questions. Even if you have been told the answers before, it is easy to forget when you are tired or stressed.

What treatment is your child going to the hospital for?

Each child with cancer will have a different treatment plan depending on the type of cancer and other factors like test results and their age. This could include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or targeted cancer drugs. You can find out more about types of cancer and how they are treated here.

Talk to your child’s care team before their hospital stay so you know what to expect. This will help you get your child ready as well.

Which ward will they be staying in?

Your child will probably be on a children’s cancer ward. Most children’s wards are friendly places. There will usually be activities for your child and people to support you as a family. Most children’s wards have a TV and video games available. These can be a useful way for you and your child to build relationships with other families.

Can I stay with my child in the hospital?

One parent or carer can usually stay with your child while they are in hospital. There might be a bed so you can sleep next to them.

Only your child gets hospital meals, but there will usually be a kitchen where you can make a cup of tea and possibly prepare snacks. There are usually showers available for parents and a place to wash your clothes.

Most hospitals provide information about their wards, facilities and the local area.

Understand your feelings

It is natural to have lots of feelings about your child going into hospital. You might be worried about them but also stressed about missing work or leaving your other children at home.

It can help to write down what is on your mind. There might be practical things you can do to reduce your stress levels. But sometimes just saying it out loud can help.

Do not be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

Asking for help

If you have any worries or questions about your child’s hospital stay, talk to a member of your child’s care team. It may be helpful to write down questions as you think of them.

You can also ask for practical help from friends and family. This could be things like making meals for the freezer or taking your other children to and from school.

Talking to your employer

You should talk to your employer about time off or flexible working as soon as you can. Make sure you know your rights. Everyone has the right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to look after their children in an emergency. What is classed as an ‘emergency’ and how much time you need will depend on the situation.

How to prepare your child for a hospital stay

It’s important to help your child prepare for a hospital stay. How and when it is ‘right’ to do this will depend on the child. Try to use words they understand and let them know you are there for them. You can also take practical steps like packing things which will make them feel more comfortable.

When to tell your child about the hospital stay

Deciding when to tell your child about their hospital stay will depend on their age and personality. Some children like to know things in advance and count down to the hospital stay on the calendar. Others may get worried so you might decide not to tell them too far ahead. About a week before for toddlers and primary school-age children is a good starting point.

Should you be honest about the stay?

You know your child best and are the best judge of how much or how little they need to know. But it is best to be honest. If you are too vague, your child might think you are trying to hide things from them.

It is also important not to make things sound less serious than they are. This does not mean you have to tell them everything at once. Think about how you can give the information in a clear and comforting way.

Packing your child’s bag

Think about what you can take with you to help your child feel more comfortable during their hospital stay. You might want to pack things like:

  • Entertainment – this could be toys, games, activity books, a portable DVD player or pre-downloaded apps on a smartphone or tablet
  • Your child’s favourite snacks and drinks
  • Something snuggly for your child to wear like pyjamas, slippers or dressing gowns
  • Anything your child will find comforting to have with them like a cuddly toy or photographs.

Tips for preparing children at different ages

What you need to do to get your child ready for a hospital stay will vary depending on how old they are. Below are some tips for what you might want to do.

Preparing infants

Although you will not be able to explain things to a young infant, you can still do some practical things to help them prepare for hospital. You can pack their favourite toy and blanket. Make sure you have plenty of bottles and milk or snack foods.

Being separated from their parents can make things hard for babies in hospital. One parent is normally encouraged to stay. The key is trying to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible. You should be able to feed, change and wash the baby whenever their treatment allows.

Preparing toddlers

It is a good idea to start preparing toddlers up to a week ahead of their hospital stay. If they are keen to know when it is happening, you could count down the number of days. You can get them to hospital role-play at home. This might lead to questions. Use words your child will understand to explain what is going to happen and reassure them you will be with them.

Preparing children at primary school

Primary school-age children can find the thought of a hospital stay scary. They may be worried about missing school and not seeing their friends. It is a good idea to tell them about a week before but some children will need more time to prepare.

Tell them how long they are likely to be in hospital and explain why they are going there. You can tell them what will happen and explain how it might help them in the long run.

Preparing teenagers

It can be difficult to talk to teenagers about staying in hospital. They might find it hard to express their feelings or be uncomfortable speaking about their body or illness.

Make sure they know they can ask you about it. Give them practical information like how long they are likely to be in hospital.

Some teenagers like to have their own diary of hospital appointments and stays. They might also want to be the ones to ask questions before and during their stay. This can help them feel more in control of what is happening.

What questions might my child ask?

There are lots of questions your child might have about their hospital stay. They might want to know practical things like how long they will have to stay. Or they might want to know if they will be able to see their friends. Some children worry they have done something wrong.

Do not feel bad if you do not know the answer to all their questions. You can always check with the care team. Depending on how old the child is, you might want to find the answers together.

Some children might not ask any questions about their hospital stay. But that does not always mean they do not want to know more. Keep checking if your child has any questions.

How long is the average hospital stay?

How long your child is in hospital will depend on the type of cancer they have and their treatment plan.

Some children have most of their treatment on day-care wards. This means they can come home at night.

Some children will have to stay in hospital for longer. Your care team should be able to give you an idea of how long to expect. This can help you and your child prepare.

How to respond if your child acts negatively

Your child might be upset or scared about going into the hospital. Talk to them about how they are feeling. They might find it helpful to write it down or draw a picture. Most children’s wards have play specialists who can help. They use play to help children understand what is happening and cope with their treatment.

You can both talk to your Young Lives Versus Cancer social worker.

Where possible, try to keep things as normal as possible – that includes the usual boundaries you set for their behaviour.

What should I bring with me?

Some items parents like to keep packed for a hospital stay include:

  • Toiletries – lip balm, hand cream and moisturisers can be particularly handy
  • Your phone or tablet charger
  • Books and magazines to keep you occupied
  • Clothes for you and your child
  • A diary or organiser and a pen to take notes
  • Washing powder or liquid

Tips for coping with ward life

  • Aim to get off the ward for a short break each day, even if it’s just for a quick coffee or a walk around the block. Ward staff will support you with this. When you leave the ward, let a member of staff know how long you’ll be gone and how to contact you if necessary.
  • Try taking an active role in your child’s care by helping them with meals, wheeling their drip, taking them to the toilet and so on.

Feel free to draw the curtain round and spend some quiet time with your child when you need to. Sometimes you might be asked to keep the curtain open if staff want to closely observe your child. Just ask if you are not sure.

Information reviewed May 2023

Next review due 2027

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