Child Life: 9 things parents should know about “play people” at hospitals

Woman with two kids on her lap talking with another woman
Children's Hospital at TriStar Centennial Child Life Specialists Beth and Alex singing along with a patient and sibling during a musician visit. 

Caroline Love takes the unofficial title of “play lady” as a term of endearment. Woman in yellow polo shirt She knows her role as a certified child life specialist at The Children’s Hospital at TriStar Centennial Medical Center in Nashville is a critical role at children’s hospitals and as a part of the healthcare team.

“On the outside, it does look like we “play” with our patients all of the time,” she said. “However, what people don’t understand is that we utilize play to learn about our patients and how they are perceiving the hospital environment; to teach our patients about a diagnosis or a procedure they will undergo; to make scary situations more bearable, and to increase our patients’ ability to cope.”

Love says that she usually smiles and acknowledges the nickname because she understands the complexity of what the title implies – being able to communicate with kids on their level.

The American Academy of Pediatrics calls child life programsWoman in navy polo shirt
“an essential component of quality pediatric healthcare,” and we want parents to know how child life specialists can support them and most importantly, their child, through what could be an upsetting experience – an extended hospital stay.

Here’s how Love and Beth Alex – both certified child life specialists at The Children’s Hospital at TriStar Centennial – help prepare children and their families for medical treatment.

  1. What role do child life specialists play on the healthcare team?

We work as an integrated member of the healthcare team. To enhance patient care and prioritize services, we accept consultations from nursing, social work, physicians and other medical staff, and this partnership allows us to help patients meet their goals while in the hospital.

More importantly, we serve as advocates for our patients and families when collaborating with the multidisciplinary healthcare team by providing the necessary bridge between our patients and the medical providers. This collaboration is key to a supportive professional relationship, positive outcomes and patient and family satisfaction.

  1. What do child life specialists do?

Our days rarely go as planned.  I (Caroline Love) typically start out my day with surgery, preparing the pediatric patients for what to expect with whatever procedure they are having and trying to normalize that environment.

I also spend a lot of time in Kids Express with the pediatric sedation team and in radiology, helping to prepare and support children during blood draws, infusions, and endocrine testing, as well as fluoroscopy scans, MRIs and other radiology procedures.

Beth will see patients in our inpatient units for normalization and play, diagnosis education, procedural preparation, and family support as well as provide coverage in the evening for the Emergency Department.

  1. What age groups do child life specialists support?

Our services extend from infants all the way up through young adults. The Child Life certification process requires in-depth knowledge of this wide span of development. Therefore, we are uniquely equipped to create interventions that are personalized and age appropriate for a broad span of age groups.

  1. What areas of the hospital do you cover?

We cover the pediatric unit, pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), pediatric emergency department, Kids Express, pediatric infusion clinic, radiology, and pediatric sedation team, so our days tend to be very busy.

  1. What ways do you support children?
  • Help patients to better understand what is going on in the hospital environment.
  • Support patients in embracing their own goals for recovery and a positive outcome.
  • The hospital can be a very scary place for a child and young adult. It is our role to normalize the environment by making the hospital experience feel so much more personable.
  1. How do you offer support to parents?
  • Empower parents to be actively involved in their child’s care throughout the admission process.
  • Encourage parents to serve as the main support system for their child during procedures by using comfort positions and distraction techniques for each parent’s comfort level.
  • Reduce parental anxiety by providing opportunities to normalize the hospital environment.
  • Assess both patient and sibling needs in order to create the best family-centered care plan.
  1. How does a child life specialist prepare a young patient for surgery?

It varies depending on the age of the patient. For example, with infants and toddlers, our goal is to build a rapport and increase the comfort level of the patient, so when they have to separate from their parents to go back to the operating room (OR), it’s not a traumatic experience.

With preschool, school-aged and adolescents, our goal is to prepare them with developmentally appropriate terms for what they are going to experience prior to anesthesia.  This includes discussions about riding on the stretcher or how the OR looks and letting them pick out a scent for their anesthesia mask or preparing them for their IV.

  1. What’s the most rewarding part of your job? Most challenging?

Our day-to-day work as educators and psychosocial and emotional support for patients and families undergoing tremendous stress is the most rewarding part of our jobs. Just knowing that we have the precious opportunity to make a family and child’s day significantly better. The positive feedback we receive from our colleagues and patients and families also validates the importance of our involvement and gives us all great personal pride. The work of child life specialists is also inherently challenging, particularly when families experience the loss of a loved one. However, we embrace that unique role of supporting the siblings, patients, and families, and focus on the contributions that we are able to provide.

  1. How do you know when a family may benefit from a child life specialist?

We prioritize our services based on referrals from the healthcare team, as well as factors such as age, invasive nature of the procedure, the family support already available, and the patient’s level of familiarity with hospitalization. We also identify patients newly admitted to our pediatric unit in order to welcome the family and assess their needs for positive coping skills and a positive outcome.

Love and Alex both agree that “play” is one of the profession’s main principles, but there is so much more. It’s about helping kids understand what’s going on and making their life and their family’s as positive as possible while at The Children’s Hospital at TriStar Centennial Medical Center.

Hospital caregivers dressed up for Halloween

Children’s Hospital at Tristar Centennial Child Life Specialists coordinated this year’s reverse Trick-or-Treat where staff dressed up and went door-to-door to drop off candy to patients. 

Group of hospital caregivers posing with a pony

Child life specialists Caroline and Beth help coordinate Children’s Day for patients in the children’s hospital that are unable to go outside and attend the festivities.

Highlighting child life specialists on this Caregiver Appreciation Day. The Children’s Hospital at TriStar Centennial is an affiliate of HCA Healthcare in Nashville.

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 183 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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