Few parental rights of passage are as unpleasant as sitting up with a sick child through the night. Whether it’s a case of the dreaded stomach flu or a bout of Strep throat, spending time with your ill child can leave you feeling painfully helpless. During the nine months I recently spent pregnant with my first child, I also worked as a pediatric hospital intern in a field called Child Life. Through stress-relieving approaches and expressive therapies including play, music and art, Child Life Specialists help relieve the suffering of children undergoing medical events from the relatively minor to the severe. As my internship unfolded and my belly grew, I started to think about how the remarkable techniques that I was learning could be put to use by parents anywhere. From the nation’s experts on soothing sick kids, here are ten well-honed approaches to making sick days less uncomfortable for kids and parents at home.
Tell the Truth
Workers in the Child Life Specialty profession operate under the basic assumption that children benefit from straightforward answers to questions. Without them, young imaginations may conjure up more concern than is necessary. If they ask, it’s okay to tell a child it’s possible they might throw up again in the night. Even if it happens, you can explain, you promise to do everything you can to make their belly (and that sour taste in their mouth) feel better as soon as it’s over.
Soothe Your Child First
When they don’t feel well, kids look to their parents and other important grown-ups for signs of agitation or concern. When you look worried, even a common case of the flu can seem scarier than it really is. Research confirms this: One of the single greatest contributors to a child’s response to feeling under the weather is the way their caretakers are handling the situation. If parents can direct their energies toward easing their child’s discomfort during times of illness, that child will benefit. Parents’ own concerns are best voiced to their peers – those adult friends and family members that can help and empathize.
Engage in Play
For children, nearly every day is a good day for play – even sick ones. Play is their first language: Any time you want to open up the lines of communication, appeal to what they know and love. Encourage storytelling if they’re in the mood, help construct a fort over their bed and let them lead in a game of sick day make-believe, or gather their favorite stuffed animals together and serve everyone tea to help their colds. Let your child be the guide – they’ll let you know what they feel like doing. In the process of playing, you may just help make them feel better.
When in Doubt, Distract
Sometimes, despite the best efforts of grown-ups to soothe a sick child’s symptoms and engage them, they continue to feel miserable. In these cases, distraction, an important item in any parenting tool kit, can be used to great effect. When a child in the hospital must have an IV placed, Child Life Specialists might use bubbles or guided visualizations as distractions. The possibilities for parents at home are unlimited. A special viewing of a fun film, for instance, telling goofy stories, or offering up a back scratch or foot rub can all do wonders to draw attention away from immediate physical discomforts.
Put Your Doctor Kit To Use
Medical play is at the heart of the work Child Life Specialists do in hospitals, and ill kids at home can reap the same benefits of this activity. Medical play involves using pretend or actual medical items paired with an explanation that demystifies why they’re important and how they’re going to be used. Children can ask questions and even walk through the scenarios themselves. This information tends to soothe worries and leaves kids feeling better prepared for what’s to come. At home, if you need to use a Neti Pot or give sour-tasting medicine, explain to your child exactly what’s going to happen, and whenever possible, use soft, non-threatening language. Sensory details are important, too – for example, you might explain that mentholated ointment on the chest could smell “like minty gum or peppermint candy.”
Second only to medical play, those in the Child Life field rely on the healing potential of expressive therapies to help usher children through challenging days. Creating a painting, writing a short story, or sculpting a set of animals from modeling clay all engage kids in the creative process and help them to explore feelings and ideas. There’s no reason parents shouldn’t join in on the fun, too, especially when children are stuck at home and are in need of some engaging company.
Bring the Outdoors In
Even when they’re bedbound, studies suggest that patients tend to recover more quickly when they can spot the natural world from their rooms. If it’s not too cold or rainy, letting a sick child who feels up to it sit outside for a few moments can go a long way toward improving their spirits. When weather doesn’t permit it, helping them to catch a glimpse of the outdoors at some point during the day may be just as helpful.
Don’t Skip The Prizes
For many kids nowadays, a trip to the dreaded dentist is made sweeter because of the small prizes – stickers, packs of gum, tiny parachute men – that await them at the end of the experience. As grown-ups, it’s not fair to expect that children will understand why swallowing uncomfortably large pills or making multiple trips to the doctor’s office can actually be a good thing. In these cases, as Child Life Specialists know well, a small token of your parental appreciation can sometimes make the experience bearable-and occasionally, thoroughly enjoyable, for all.
Parental instincts should rarely be ignored, but neither should children’s. If you suspect that a persistent cough deserves an additional follow-up with your physician, trust your gut. Similarly, Child Life Specialists are always aware that the voices of children must be heeded, too. If you ask them, kids often can give you an honest assessment of how they’re feeling compared to yesterday. They can also tell you if what they need most is a nap, an additional blanket, or a grape popsicle.
Don’t Neglect Yourself
Caring for a sick child, especially during an intense or extended illness, has the potential to take a toll on any parent. During times when you’re in need of a break and the time is right, going out for a good meal or a beautiful walk can go a long way towards helping to make you a more effective caregiver. And a more effective caregiver can translate into a more pleasant experience for your child, and if you’re lucky, maybe even a speedier recovery.