Child Life Specialists: Your Partner in Patient Care

An introduction to the Child Life Specialist's role in the hospital.

Updated:   Published

If you have ever pondered what the woman with the bubbles is doing in room 5 or wondered why there is someone with your patient that is explaining their upcoming procedure, this is the article for you!

Before I became a second career nurse, I was a Child Life Specialist (CLS). It was an amazing opportunity to work with patients and help them cope with the aspects of the hospital. I was inspired by the nurses to come over to the nursing world. However, I still use those valuable lessons and skills I learned in child life in my nursing practice each shift.

You may be wondering what Child Life Specialists are. They are healthcare professionals that help patients and their families cope with their medical experience. They support patients and help them understand their medical condition and hospital procedures. They have a minimum bachelor's degree, and several obtain a master's degree, usually in child development, education or psychology. They also must complete a 600-hour internship under the direct supervision of a certified child life specialist. They also complete several working or volunteer hours in various settings, such as schools, university child labs, or daycares, before graduation. After completing training and academic requirements, they will be eligible to sit for the Child Life Specialist certification. The training provides opportunities to develop an understanding of child development, medical terminology, procedures, coping techniques, and communication skills.

Child Life Specialists have the skills to teach patients at their cognitive and developmental levels. They can also make learning and the hospital experience less intimidating ... and maybe even fun. One of the goals is to teach coping skills to deal with what the patient is facing.

They take the time to break down what the child might experience through teaching, preparation, education, play, and self-expression activities. Providing developmentally appropriate information can reduce the patient's fears because, many times, patients develop anxiety because of the unknown or misconceptions.

Medical play helps patients because they get to interact with medical materials and be in control of the situation, which increases the patient's comfort level. The CLS will bring in materials that the patient can interact with and ask questions. The materials are safe for children, e.g., no needles. They may be able to hold a syringe and squirt water on paper, interact with suture materials or pick out their own mask they will use to fall asleep in surgery. Many times, control is taken away from the patient, so it is beneficial to give patients opportunities to have control and make choices when appropriate.

Child Life Specialists might help distract patients during procedures. Guided imagery, distraction, and relaxation exercises are common practices. The CLS will be in the procedure with the patient to support them. They typically assist in imaging, emergency room, bedside procedures, and even taking patients to surgery. If they have permission to go there, they want to be there to support the patient.

They also provide family-centered care and help them cope with a loved in in the hospital. They offer sibling support through teaching, play and support groups. Many professionals also provide bereavement teaching and comfort for families. Families have an opportunity to work through feelings, ask questions and feel heard.

One of the goals of Child Life Specialists is to normalize the environment. This includes providing fun activities for the patients while they are in the hospital. This includes toys, games, craft projects, and organizing special visitors and events. They may even be in charge of the prizes given to patients or receiving donations. It is a benefit to the patient to just feel like a kid in an intimidating environment.

Child Life Specialists collaborate with the healthcare team to provide the best outcomes for the patients. They want you to reach out and work together. They do their best to be proactive and learn about potential procedures or issues that might happen during the shift. However, they have the whole unit or hospital to assist, so providing them with updates on your patients is very helpful. It may be as simple as telling them room 3 is getting an IV in 30 minutes when you see them in the hall (no need for a 2nd handoff report, keep it simple). This provides time to speak with the patient, prep, educate and be available to distract when it's time.  It can be hard when it is busy, but it is definitely worth it to keep them in the loop.

So, the next time you see a Child Life Specialist on your unit, say hi and introduce yourself. Don't hesitate to ask for their help and include them in your care. They are an important part of the healing process and can take time to educate or provide fun activities for your patient that you might not be able to do on a busy shift. We are in it together!

ledzep97 MSN, RN Pediatrics, School Nursing, Pre/post op and PACU Natalie truly enjoys the unique needs of the pediatric population. She has experience in School Nursing and Pre/Post OP. She was a Child Life Specialist before becoming an RN

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2BS Nurse, BSN

699 Posts

Has 10 years experience.

This is such an important job. Sadly, yet another example of a master's prepared health care worker that doesn't get paid enough.