Bailey Chambers, child life specialist at Children’s of Alabama, talks with a patient.
When a child is hospitalized, the experience can lead to feelings of fear, confusion and isolation. Those feelings can have negative effects on the child’s physical and emotional health. At Children’s of Alabama, Child Life Specialists help the young patients and their families better understand medical diagnoses and treatment.
“We focus on the psychosocial needs of children and work to reduce stress while promoting positive coping and development,” says Children’s Child Life Specialist Bailey Chambers. “Our goal is to prepare them for the things they will face during the hospital stay, because when children understand things, they cope better.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics affirms that child life is “an essential component of quality pediatric health care,” and as such, Child Life services have become a standard in most pediatric hospital settings. Child Life Specialists are trained professionals who typically work as members of an interdisciplinary team, which may include physicians, nurses, social workers, therapists, counselors, teachers, parents and others. The specialists:
- Prepare children for medical procedures using language that children understand,
- Introduce coping strategies to help reduce anxiety and enhance cooperation with the health care team,
- Provide support and distraction during medical procedures,
- Offer opportunities for play to encourage normal development and a sense of fun in spite of challenging circumstances, and
- Promote family-centered care by providing information, advocacy and support to families of pediatric patients.
At Children’s of Alabama, the Child Life program – part of the Department of Family Services – is designed to help patients feel as much like “normal kids” as possible while in the hospital. “By providing activities that nurture the patients’ development and educational needs, the staff can help normalize the hospital environment and help them forget about being in the hospital for the time being,” Chambers says.
“Activity rooms and classrooms are located throughout our hospital where children can play. We offer therapeutic activities where they can experience a reassuring routine that gives them a chance to experience control over their environment,” Chambers says. “We also explain the things they will experience in their treatments at their level of understanding.”
Chambers and her colleagues also encourage cooperation by providing preparation and support for children undergoing tests, surgeries, and other medical procedures. “We use teaching dolls that provide examples of the types of treatment a particular child will be receiving. The doll can have a port, a PICC line or a gastrostomy tube, and when the children use these dolls for medical play they get familiar with the equipment and it de-mystifies the experience for them,” she says.
Teddy Bear Clinics are provided annually for patients. Each child can take his Teddy bear to be admitted, to have an X-ray or to have a cast put on an arm. The Child Life Specialists also use educational books to familiarize the child with a particular treatment. “One book discusses one-day surgery and takes the patients through each step involved,” Chambers says. “It talks about the blood pressure cuff and the medicines they will take to help them ‘take a nap.’ It also helps the parents understand what the child will experience since they can’t go with the child to the operating room.”
The Child Life Specialists also consider the needs of siblings who may be affected by a child’s illness. “We work regularly with siblings, especially those who have a brother or sister in the hematology/oncology unit. They don’t always understand why their sibling is getting more attention and why they are in the hospital so much,” Chambers says. “We do education with them and keep a check on them to see how they are coping.”
The Child Life staff also coordinates regular featured activities in the hospital for children and their families. They provide different carnivals throughout the year, and they partner with other departments to facilitate various activities throughout the hospital. “The Sugar Plum Shop is a special event that we hold each Christmas in partnership with our Children’s of Alabama Foundation. With the support of community partners, we are able to stock the shop with age-specific toys that parents can choose for all of their children since they may not have a chance to leave the hospital to shop. The Sugar Plum Shop is provided to families at no cost to the families being served,” Chambers says. “The shop also includes a hospitality room where the parents can enjoy coffee and snacks while their gifts are being wrapped. And of course, Santa comes to the hospital every Christmas Eve and visits each child.”
Chambers says one of the best parts of her job is helping a child overcome fear. Through the use of relaxation techniques and the other various activities, she says she helps them emotionally to deal with fears which will help during the current hospital stay, as well as for future visits.
“I remember one patient, a 7-year-old girl, who was terrified of needles. After I had worked with her during a few clinic visits doing medical play, she was giving herself finger pricks and insulin shots at home,” Chambers says. “We take the time to build rapport with the children so they can get used to us. We want them to learn master coping strategies so that they become more independent in their care and hospital experience. That is one of my goals.”