Skip to Main Content

Helping put minds and hearts at ease in pediatrics

Child Life Specialists reduce anxiety for children and families

A child pulls the plunger on a syringe filling it with bright blue paint. The art he’s creating for his parents is splattered like a Jackson Pollock painting. “We fill a syringe with paint and use it to squirt colors on paper to reduce the stress around injections for our pediatric patients,” says Ali Waltien, MA, CCLS, a certified child life specialist at UVM Children’s Hospital. For children, a hospital stay can be an especially anxiety-provoking experience, but a team of child life specialists at UVM Children’s Hospital make the experience approachable and playful. Waltien says the syringe activity is one of the many therapeutic tools they use to ease children into the hospital experience. 

Providing care, creatively

According to the Association of Child Life Professionals, certified child life specialists “provide evidence-based, developmentally appropriate interventions including therapeutic play […] and education to reduce fear, anxiety and pain” for pediatric patients and their families. A hospital stay can be stressful for any patient, but for children there are the added worries of separation from their families and a lack of understanding of the hospital experience. 

Ali Waltien, child life specialist at UVM Medical Center

Related: 4 ways to help children cope with being at the hospital 

“Ahead of a surgery, I’ll bring out the mask used for anesthesia and will start to play with the child and their family to introduce it. Kids get to choose a smell and decorate it with stickers which helps them feel proud of their mask and want to use it,” says Certified Child Life Specialist Sierra Scheller, MS, CCLS. The team says these educational opportunities help normalize the care process in advance of the actual procedure. From teddy bears to dolls to superhero action figures, child life specialists combine toys and medical devices to demonstrate what the child will experience. Also during this time, the child life team will model positive coping skills and will rehearse them for use during the procedure.   

“What looks like simple singing and blowing bubbles is actually a complex plan we’ve designed to fit the emotional, developmental and cognitive level of each child,” says Waltien. 

Including caregivers in the care process

The child life team addresses the needs of the family, too. Parents and caregivers are at the core of patient and family-centered care. “Adults need information just as much as children. Families can feel overwhelmed and then grasp just a selection of the information we provide. To help them cope, we make sure they know they’re a valued member of the care team,” says Child Life Specialist Jennifer Eddy, BA, CCLS. Whether that’s holding a child’s hand or providing helpful distraction, Eddy says everyone in the room has a role to play. “We empower family members to be part of the experience. They’re not just bystanders, they’re an active part of the care and healing process.” 

Related: What is the Pediatric Comfort Zone? 

To create a more approachable and unified care experience, the child life team has expanded their presence across the hospital. They connect with patients, siblings and children of adult patients not only in the inpatient areas, but also the phlebotomy lab, pediatric intensive care unit, Children’s Specialty Center, operating room, radiology and pediatric sedation center (known as the Comfort Zone) and soon the emergency department. The team provides a warm introduction and hand-off to patients and families as their care transitions throughout the hospital.  

Related: Tending to the children of patients 

“We aim to be the familiar face for families arriving at the hospital to create a coordinated care experience,” says Eddy. “Whether its delivering toys to the emergency department or saying hello in radiology, small gestures give caregivers a lot of relief. Improving their time in the hospital is one of the most rewarding things we do.” 

This story was reported by Emily McManamy, with the UVM Health Network. 

Monty reading a book in a chair.

Subscribe to Monty’s Digest