One of the most distressing experiences of parenthood is when a child is so sick, they have to be hospitalized. This is a huge responsibility for you as a parent, because your child cannot always articulate what is wrong or where it hurts, so you must act as the advocate, liaising with hospital staff while helping your child stay comfortable.

When to go to hospital?

The right time to go to hospital is when you say to yourself “I am not the person to look after my child’s health right now.” It’s easy to make that call when a bone is broken or a cut on the hand won’t stop bleeding – not so easy, when the child is complaining about stomach pain in between playing with friends, or when a fever and runny nose might just be a persistent cold.

For most parents, there is an instinctive moment when your child is “not himself/ herself” so you “just know.” This is absolutely the right time to take your child to hospital.  Make a list of specific symptoms along with a timeframe to help the medical team pinpoint the issue and the right treatment.

Preparing for hospital

Pack sleepwear, toiletries and a change of clothes for both of you – and some snacks and a book for yourself. If your child is admitted into hospital, as a patient, she will receive meals on a hospital tray (unless she is nil by mouth) – however, most hospitals do not feed the parents/ caregivers of patients. Assume in advance that you will need to fend for yourself or rely on the hospital cafeteria to be open for business.

Your child will also want a cuddly companion, such as a favourite bear. A blanket or rug from home is very comforting and adds a homelike touch to the stark hospital décor. Once she is admitted, delegate a family member to bring in a few books and games to keep her entertained.


Encourage your child to talk to the medical team

As much as possible, encourage your child to speak directly to the doctor when explaining what is wrong. You will need to go over the story again, providing a time frame and your child’s medical background.  Even if your child might be too young to give a clear description of the issue without help, it is a great learning experience to be able to communicate with a medical team. This also gives your child a sense of control over the proceedings. Of course, some children will tell the doctor “Nothing’s wrong, I want to go home now.” It will be a great help to the doctor if your child is familiar with the correct names for various body parts, as this can simplify communication with medical staff and cuts down on the need for you to translate.

Ask questions

As the advocate, your job is to ask questions: What tests will you be doing? What are the results? What do you think the results will be? What treatment do you suggest? If you find any of the responses to be vague or unclear, either ask the same doctor again, or ask someone else. In the early stage of examination and treatment, it is common for the situation to be vague while the doctors consider a range of possibilities. Also carefully monitor what your child can eat or drink at any time. You don’t want tests to be delayed because your child had a small snack.

If the doctor decides your child is healthy, even though you know something is wrong, ask for tests to be conducted – don’t go home without a blood test and scans, so you are confident the medical team have examined every aspect of your child’s condition. Once the results are in, ask what they mean. If you don’t understand, ask again.

Encourage your child to ask questions, so they retain a sense of control over the proceedings. Will this hurt? What does that machine do?

Deciphering the medical explanation

It is difficult to understand what a doctor is telling you – partly because you are not a medical expert, and partly because you might be too anxious or overwhelmed to fully absorb what the doctor is telling you. Write down key terms, such as the type of tests they are doing, the conditions they believe you child might have, and the results of any tests, such as a blood count or an oxygen saturation reading. These notes might not make sense to you right away, but they will help you get a grasp on the situation, or pass the information on to someone else who can help you understand.

Monitor your nurses

Stay watchful that your nurses are following correct procedures by washing their hands, checking your child’s ID bracelet and giving the right medications. Question any inconsistencies between what is happening and what is told. Sometimes the doctors will schedule another test or prescribe a different medication after they’ve spoken to you – however, it is always worth checking that everyone is treating the right patient correctly.

Keep hospital life as peaceful as possible

Most children’s hospitals have the facilities to allow at least one caregiver to stay with the patient. While this can add some extra stress for Mum and Dad who have to consider work and other kids, being with a parent or relative can be a great comfort. Try to set a realistic limit to the number of caregivers staying with your child, so the changeover between Mum, Dad, Grandpa, and Aunty doesn’t become too stressful. Set a strict limit on visitors – hospital life is exhausting so while visitors can be exciting, the novelty wears off quickly for a sick person.

Ryan’s Rule

Ryan’s Rule is a family escalation process you can invoke at the hospital if you are concerned by the response you are receiving from medical staff. You might be able to see that your child is uncharacteristically pale, irritable or withdrawn but a doctor or nurse do not have the same insight into your child’s personality. Or you may feel the medical team are dismissing your concern about certain symptoms.

If you are concerned that your child’s health problems are not being addressed, you can assert yourself by raising your concerns and asking for a fresh review. The first step in the process is to talk to a nurse or doctor about your concerns. If you are not satisfied with the response, talk to the nurse in charge of the shift. If you still feel the medical staff are not taking your concerns seriously, phone 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) to request a Ryan’s Rule Clinical Review, so a Ryan’s Rule nurse or doctor can review the patient and assist you.

Do not agree to take your child home from hospital unless you are absolutely confident that the health issue is reduced and that you can care for your child at home.

As a vigilant advocate, you can ensure your child is comfortable and confident in hospital, and receives exactly the right treatment he needs to recover as rapidly as possible. Two-way communication is the key to effective health care, so you need to be confident about speaking out and asking questions, and requesting more information if necessary. The medical team is committed to providing the correct treatment and sending your child home healthy, so you need to work alongside them, providing the information they need to make the correct diagnosis and asking questions so you can make informed decisions on your child’s behalf.

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