When Melissa Giunta's 3-week-old son Gabriel suddenly began having trouble breathing, the family's pediatrician diagnosed him with bronchiolitis and sent them to the hospital. X-rays showed pneumonia in his lungs, and their one-day stay quickly turned into eight.
Giunta was on maternity leave from her job as a financial manager in Tampa, Florida, so she was able to stay with Gabriel the entire time. Her husband also took time off work, and the couple's oldest child stayed with Giunta's parents so they could focus on the baby. The hospital staff was amazing, she says, and Gabriel made a full recovery. Still, the experience was overwhelming.
"I was an emotional mess," Giunta recalls. "It's heartbreaking to see your newborn hooked up to IVs and extensive oxygen support. I felt helpless."
The stress of having your child in the hospital
Whether it's for a planned procedure or an unexpected emergency, having a young child in the hospital is physically and emotionally draining. Not only are you worried about your child's safety and comfort, but you also must deal with going to work and taking care of yourself – and the rest of your family – at the same time.
"As parents, we're supposed to be the ones who kiss the boo-boos and make our kids feel better, and when something is serious enough to land them in the hospital, we lose that ability," says Kelly McElligott, a social worker at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. "Plus, you're in an unfamiliar place, you're not sleeping well, you're probably in a bit of shock, and you have to balance all of that with making important decisions and being strong for your child."
Although it's impossible to eliminate all sources of stress involved with a hospital stay, knowing what to expect can make the process a bit easier. Here are a few strategies to help you communicate with your child's care team, cope with the long hours and cramped conditions, and be the best parent you can during an extremely trying time.
Learn as much as possible
As soon as you know your child will be hospitalized, ask your doctors how you can best prepare. "Your goal should be to minimize surprises because surprises are distressing," says family therapist Christiane Manzella, PhD, clinical director of the Seleni Institute. "You may not have control over what happens, but you can at least give yourself a sense of mastery over what to expect."
This can help you not blow things out of proportion or immediately imagine the worst-case scenario. It can also brace you for outcomes that may be unsettling. "You should know if your child is going to be intubated, what that will look like, or if he will have side effects or swelling or scars," she says.
It can also help to talk with other parents – either in person or online – whose child had a similar hospital experience. (Your medical team may be able to connect you with another family or refer you to a support group.) "Hearing firsthand experiences, both the good stuff and also how other parents dealt with the challenging stuff, can be really reassuring," says Janine Rosenberg, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who works with kids with facial birth defects.
Rosenberg stresses that hospital stays and procedures are almost always harder on the parents than they are on very young patients. "Babies and small children bounce back so much faster than you or I," she says, "especially if the parent is able to stay strong and positive throughout their time there."
Enlist a support team
Another priority should be putting a social support system in place, especially if you have other children or responsibilities to take care of. "Get your ducks in a row about the people who are going to help you logically, emotionally, and spiritually during your child's stay," says Manzella.
Those people can include your partner and other friends or family members who can babysit, run errands, or just lend an ear. It can also include religious leaders, coworkers, and mental health professionals.
"I offer to make hospital visits for the families I work with," says Manzella. "It's expected that this will be a deeply challenging time, and it's not a sign of weakness to reach out and ask for professional help." If you don't currently have your own therapist, most hospitals have in-house social workers (like McElligott) available to patients and their families.
Make yourself as comfortable as possible
Safiya Simmons, a business owner in Washington, DC, spent four days in the hospital when her 2-year-old son Enrique developed a mysterious respiratory infection. While there, she quickly learned that her son's temperament was a direct reflection of her own.
"On the days I felt my worst, if I couldn't play cards with him or if I acted stressed out with the nurses, I think he also felt his worst," she says. "I had to remind myself that my main priority was to be a buffer between my kid and the care he was getting – to protect the energy that was going toward him."
Making sure to take care of yourself can help you maintain that upbeat attitude for your child, says Rosenberg. That includes getting enough rest, eating well, and taking occasional breaks from your caregiver role, getting outside for fresh air or even away from the hospital for a few hours, if possible.
"Ask about sleep and food, like whether you should bring extra blankets from home, when the cafeteria is open, or if you can order food for delivery," she says. "Often the hospital staff is so focused on the patients, they forget to ask [you] how [you're] doing and if [you] need anything."
Most hospitals have foldout couches or "sleeper chairs" for visitors, which Simmons used for most of her son's stay. But it wasn't until their last night in the hospital that she thought to ask a nurse for an extra pillow.
"All of a sudden it was like Bed Bath & Beyond showed up in our room," she says. "I think we're afraid to ask because this isn't a hotel and we're not even the patient, but really they [were] happy to accommodate."
Hospitals often have all sorts of resources that stressed-out parents might not think to ask about. When Jessica Spataro's 8-month-old son Nico was admitted to the hospital for emergency ear surgery, the hospital let her borrow a breast pump. "They even stored the milk for me," she says. "That made me feel better, like they cared about [our] well-being."
McElligott's hospital has a family lounge complete with a shower and a fitness center, both of which she encourages parents to use. "If a parent needs a break, we make sure their child is being watched over and entertained. We'll bring them out to the nurse's station or take them for walks around the halls, so Mom or Dad can feel comfortable taking some alone time."
You may even be able to ask for (or bring your own) earplugs and a sleeping mask if you're having trouble drowning out lights and sounds overnight, says McElligott. But talk to the doctors before you do because they may want you to be easily alerted to changes in your child's condition.
Ask questions and speak up for your child
Talking with doctors and making sure your concerns are heard can be the most intimidating part of having a child in the hospital, says Manzella. She recommends keeping a running list of questions for the medical staff, so you're prepared when they stop by for a visit.
"Doctors have a very hectic schedule and their time with each patient is limited," she says, "so if you don't have a list to refer to, you could forget something when you do get a moment with them."
If you don't understand or agree with the medical staff's plan, ask for clarification or alternatives that might be available. Simmons pushed back when her son's doctor wanted to continue with a course of treatment she'd already tried at home. After two days, the doctor agreed to try something new, and her son began showing improvement right away.
Spataro, an attorney in Washington, DC, wishes she'd been more outspoken at times during her own experience. It was so painful for her son to have his IV changed – and so stressful to watch him crying – every 24 hours. One nurse was able to change the IV quickly and easily, but others struggled. "My advice would be that if this happens, to request that they take a break, let the child calm down, and try again," she says. "And if one person is better at it than another, request that person if [he or she is] on duty."
Tend to other relationships
While her son was in the hospital, Simmons felt pressure to keep family and friends informed around the clock. "Having to be both the primary caregiver and the gatekeeper of information for people texting and calling and praying added a lot of stress," she says.
So she outsourced the "gatekeeper" role to her husband, who stayed home with their two daughters while she spent nights with their son. "I'd say, 'Hey, my mom and dad and sister called, can you jump on a quick conference call and let them know what happened today?'"
The Simmons family also kept their daughters (4 and 5 at the time) in the loop by scheduling FaceTime calls with their brother. "We didn't hide the IV or the funny hospital gown. We just explained how they were helping him feel better." She also made sure to ask about the girls' weeks, so they would know their mom was still there for them, too.
For Spataro, posting Facebook updates was a helpful way to communicate with many loved ones at once. "It was really nice to know that friends were concerned and talking us through our days there," she says. "We had a lot of friends offer to bring things to the hospital as well."
Be prepared for discharge
Even when your child is ready to come home, the stress may not stop. Discharge can actually be one of the scariest times for parents.
"All of a sudden the responsibility falls back on you, and sometimes the child still has ongoing health issues," says Manzella. That's why it's so important to get clear instructions from your child's care team and make sure you understand them.
"Don't be afraid to say, 'What does this really mean? Slow down, and tell me that again,'" she says, "and make sure you know to call if there's a question or complication that arises." Having your child home will surely relieve some of the emotional strain of the past days or weeks, but knowing you're fully prepared to care for him or her once you get there will give you even more peace of mind.