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Making Hospital Stays Less Scary For Children

By Erin Egan
The Children's Movement of Florida

The hospital can be a scary place, especially for children who don’t understand what is going on or what to expect. If you’ve ever been in a children’s hospital, you may have run in to a Child Life Specialist who is there to make the hospital less scary for its youngest patients.

Child Life Specialists (CLS) are professionals who work to ensure that life remains as normal as possible for children in health care settings and other challenging environments. They promote effective coping through play, self-expression activities, and age-appropriate medical preparation and education.

As advocates of family-centered care, Child Life Specialists work as part of the medical team with doctors, nurses, social workers and others to meet the unique emotional, developmental and cultural needs of each child and family.

Within the state of Florida, there are 34 Child Life Departments, which range in size from one to 18 Child Life Specialists. These departments often include other services, such as art therapy, music therapy, and pet therapy. Together, these services help children and their families experience normal life within the walls of a hospital.

According to the Child Life Council, “Children who are prepared for medical procedures experience less fear and anxiety, and will have better long term adjustment to medical challenges.”

In states and communities that deal with unique barriers, having a catalyst for clear communication can go a long way. It is a Child Life Specialist’s job to make sure all members of the family feel comfortable and understand what is going on in order to make the hospital experience as smooth as possible.

However, while they're often welcomed as a crucial member of the health care team, sometimes Child Life Specialists are overlooked because they're caring for the patient’s emotional health instead of his or her physical health. Some confuse Child Life Specialists with pediatric nurses, but their roles are extremely different in a child’s care. For example, pediatric nurses’ expertise resides in responsibilities of a child’s medical experiences in a hospital, not supporting the developmental and emotional well-being.

According to the Child Life Council, of the 34 Child Life programs in Florida, 16 have just one Child Life Specialist on staff. While these programs have great impacts on many children, an increase in knowledge about Child Life could lead to larger programs that are able to help even more children.

While the Child Life field continues to grow, many specialists hope that Child Life will become a standard of care in all medical environments involving children. Many hospitals that serve adult patients have begun to incorporate Child Life services to help children and families cope with a parent’s illness.

As the field continues to expand, there will be more research conducted to collect data supporting the benefits Child Life has on medical outcomes in many different settings.