These Are The Healthcare Workers You Didn’t Know Kids Needed
And honestly, adults who love their kids need them, too.
A young man sits in his hospital bed, watching intently as a nurse places an IV needle in the wing of his Big Bird stuffed animal. The nurse is trying to make him more comfortable before giving him his own IV. The Tik Tok showing this tender moment went viral, with commenters giving the nurse well-deserved praise for slowing down and giving his patient a chance to process. It’s not something most of us have seen before.
In children’s hospitals across the country, a special kind of healthcare worker does this each day. They walk alongside children as they’re wheeled into the operating room, play lullabies for parents and babies in the NICU, and explain what getting stitches is like to an injured kid in the ER.
Child life specialists are trained in child development — they usually have a degree in child life, development, or psychology — and they use that knowledge to make being in the hospital, having surgery, or getting a new diagnosis, a little bit easier.
“We work with children and families to help them cope with the stress and uncertainty of the hospital setting,” says Ashley Jones, MS, child life specialist at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville, in an interview with Romper. “One of the main goals child life specialists share is the reduction of fear, anxiety, and pain.”
Child life specialists give kids a chance to play out their procedures.
One thing all kids have in common is that playtime is everything — it’s how they learn, express themselves, and process. So, it makes sense why children’s hospitals have these playtime pros on staff, and why toys are their most important tools. They use play to explain what medical procedures will be like, from a simple needle stick to a complex surgery.
“We might have an Elsa doll with a nasal cannula or a feeding tube, and we have a surgery doll with the appropriate places for chest tubes or other things they’ll have on them after surgery,” Kassidy Narber, CCLS, child life specialist at Children’s of Alabama, tells Romper in an interview. “We had one patient who needed a ventricular assist device, essentially a pump for their blood outside their body. They wanted their stuffed animal to also have a VAD, so we got creative in doing that. It’s a big deal for kids to see that on something they’re familiar with and explore it, and also to have something that matches them.”
“We like to use familiar items to replicate, and give kids a chance to rehearse, any medical experience prior to it happening,” says Megan Fisher, CCLS, child life educator at Children’s Hospital Colorado. She works in the outpatient cardiology department, preparing kids for things like echocardiograms. “From the movie Trolls, we have a microphone for karaoke with a wire, so I use that to demonstrate what the ultrasound wand looks like, and they can practice using it on their stuffed animal or themselves.”
Jones says she brings medical supplies, like syringes, tourniquets, and IV catheters, and a cuddly stuffed animal along with her to explain procedures to her patients. “We allow the patient to lead the session and play doctor. If we know a patient has to have an EEG, we take the EEG leads into the room and have the patient play with the leads and put them on their stuffed animal or doll. I’ve also done syringe painting with patients where they fill medical syringes up with paint and release them onto a poster board to make a picture.”
When kids (and babies, in particular) spend time in the hospital, it can have an impact on their development. Child life specialists make sure they don’t miss out on things like tummy time, social interaction, and more.
“We use our child life assistants to provide a lot of developmentally appropriate play and normalization. We work with other disciplines like physical therapy and occupational therapy to help our patients stay on track during longer hospitalizations as well,” Jones said.
Child life specialists step in during the hard stuff.
Some kids in the hospital can get serious diagnoses, and trying to explain cancer to a grade-schooler would feel impossible for any parent. Fortunately, they don’t have to do it alone.
“For a cancer diagnosis, we make ‘blood soup,’” says Fisher. “We use a urine specimen cup and fill it with Karo syrup to represent plasma, then add Red Hots for red blood cells and white rice for white blood cells. Depending on their diagnosis, we can alter that model to help them understand what’s going on.”
For many families, their child in the hospital isn’t their only kid. When siblings come to visit, they sometimes need preparation for what their brother or sister will look like. Child life specialists are there for them, too. For example, at Fisher’s hospital, they have an intubated doll they can show kids first so they can see the equipment their sibling will have on them when they enter the room. Moms and dads also call for advice when they learn their child will need surgery.
“Parents will ask how to tell their child how they’re having open heart surgery, and the schedulers will connect them with us to talk about developmentally appropriate language and timing for that conversation,” Fisher says. “With a 3-year-old, they don’t have an awareness of time, so telling them just a day or two before is appropriate, whereas a school-aged kid or teenager might appreciate having more forewarning and the ability to process ahead of time.”
The unfortunate reality of children’s hospitals is that, sometimes, the worst outcome comes true. While no one can take away the pain of losing a child, these healthcare heroes do everything they can to support families.
“We can provide handprints or footprints for the family to have,” Narber says. “We have this device to record heartbeats so the parents can have that, and we work closely with our music therapists to put those heartbeats to music for the parents to keep. It’s an honor to be able to walk alongside families in that situation and provide that support for them.”
Child life specialists teach little ones to cope with big feelings.
In some hospitals, the child life team includes a music therapist, who uses music to help kids manage their pain, express their feelings, and get moving. Some, like Morgan Maxwell, board-certified music therapist at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville, even have specialized training to use music to support the brain development of babies in the NICU who were born pre-term.
“We can bring out certain instruments to encourage kids to play or work on range of motion. As they get older, we’re dealing with more emotional development and expression, so we do a lot of songwriting. That may be about what it’s like to be in the hospital or get an IV, or a patient will get a difficult diagnosis, and so we sit with that and write about it. Music therapy is a support to help their mental and emotional development so they learn how to cope. We don’t want the things we learn in the hospital to only apply in the hospital.”
These child life specialists all agree that each day in a children’s hospital is unpredictable, with extreme highs and lows, but that the highs are worth it all. Narber had a teen patient who excelled in art and used it to cope during his hospital stay. When he was nearly ready to head home, she organized an exhibit of everything he’d created to celebrate his hard work. And Maxwell described a patient of hers who struggled after being in the hospital for a long time. The pair rewrote “Party in the USA” to describe her experience from beginning to end. And when she was discharged, they played her song to parade her out of the unit and send her home smiling.
Ashley Jones, MS, CCLS, child life specialist at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville
Megan Fisher, CCLS, child life educator at Children’s Hospital Colorado
Kassidy Narber, CCLS, cardiac child life specialist at Children's of Alabama
Morgan Maxwell, board-certified music therapist at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville