Guidance for children visiting

Guidance for children visiting loved ones on our wards

Adults may instinctively want to protect children by not talking about what has happened when someone they know has been admitted to hospital. It’s normal to want to protect our children from sadness. Very young children will not be able to comprehend what has happened but will be sensitive to changes in the environment, whereas older children and teenagers will have a better understanding and may ask more direct questions.

Making the decision to visit

Visiting with a pre-school child should probably be actively discouraged other than in exceptional / compassionate situations as their immune systems are still in early development and the infection risk to them is greater than the risk to the patient.

Having a sick family member in hospital can be stressful for every family member, especially children, who may have many questions why their relative is missing from family life and for parents it is normal to want to protect children from sadness and worry and difficult to find the answers to many of their questions. But making illness and mortality invisible to them can have unexpected consequences in the long term

Children over the age of four generally find visiting a sick relative helpful as it increases their understanding and involvement in their relative’s illness and reduces their feelings of separation and fear. However the balance of risk to the child must be factored in and certainly if a child of any age is hesitant about visiting they should not be forced to do so.

Age related considerations

Infants: Babies aged less than 1 year do not have a fully developed immune system and as such a visit should probably be actively discouraged other than in exceptional or compassionate situations.

Toddlers: Young children aged less than 3 years will often want to see close relatives who are in hospital such as parents, siblings or grandparents. They will not be able to understand what is happening and they may find it a frightening and scary place. If you decide that they should visit, they should always be with an adult to make sure that they are kept safe and who can also explain, in very simple terms, what they see. The visit should be kept short and last only a few minutes.

Children aged 3–6 years: Some children of this age benefit from visiting a sick relative, whereas others may find the experience upsetting. Parents should be advised to spend some time talking about what they will see before and during the visit. The child may wish to draw a picture for their relative that can be kept at their bedside. Children in this age group should always visit with an adult and the visits should be kept to a few minutes at a time as they may get upset, restless or distracted.

School-aged children: Should be able to visit their sick relative. They need the situation explained to them and they should be encouraged to ask questions allowing for any misunderstandings to be cleared up before the visit. They should not be left by themselves and should keep their visit to a maximum of around 30 minutes.

Adolescents: Should be able to visit their sick relative. Although they may fully understand the situation, it is important that they are supported by an adult and encouraged to ask questions to clarify any misunderstandings but they may still need some adult supervision.

Preparing for the visit

  • Explain what the hospital and ward is like to the child so that they are prepared for the sight of machines and lots of noise.
  • If the patient has any physical injuries such as swelling, scars or tubes attached to them, discuss this with your child first to help reduce shock or fear.
  • Consider showing the child a photograph of their patient in hospital to prepare them for how they may look.
  • Perhaps agree on a ‘code word’ or sign with the child in advance; this code word can then be used during the visit if at any point the child wishes to leave.
  • Reassure the child that they can change their mind at any time. If they get to the hospital and change their mind, allow them to wait for a while. They may or may not decide to go in, but either way, support them with their decision.

When you visit with a child

If you do decide to bring your child to visit a relative we ask you please:

  • Only bring children to visit immediate family members (e.g. parents, siblings or grandparents).
  • Do not bring in children who are unwell or have any signs of infections. Many patients in our hospitals are very susceptible to infection. Please do not put them at risk.
  • Do check that your children are up to date with their immunisations. If not, please don’t bring them in.
  • Please ensure that your child is supervised by an adult at all times.
  • Many wards have more than one patient in a room, please ensure they are considerate and keep noise levels to a minimum.
  • Our wards have lots of different equipment around and at the bedsides. Please do not allow small children to play with them.
  • We suggest that visits by children are kept to up to 30 minutes at a time. Any longer and they may become restless or bored.
  • Try to come with another person who will be able to be with your child after 30 minutes giving you more time with your relative.
  • Bring along some books, colouring in or handheld games consoles to keep children occupied.
  • Help us to maintain good infection control— when visiting always remove outside jackets, hands should be washed or hand gel used on entering and leaving the ward.
  • Do not allow your child to sit on the bed, but they will be able to hold hands or give their relative a cuddle.