Treatments & Research

Prescribing Joy: Child Life Makes a Difference

Child life specialists are transforming the atmosphere to help children feel more at ease while receiving treatment.

Creating a soothing environment with sensory carts helps reduce patients’ fears during medical procedures

On a special cart at Shriners Hospitals for Children Canada, a collection of items awaits, ready to help soothe the senses and ease the mind of a worried child.

The primary role of a child life specialist is to reduce the stress and anxiety of hospitalization on patients. Whether a patient is coming to the hospital for a one-time surgery or has a chronic condition that requires them to visit longer or more frequently, child life specialists must engage with the child as early as possible to have the best outcome.

Child life specialists are integral to many interdisciplinary care teams at Shriners Hospitals for Children Canada. These include the Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) team, Metabolic Clinic, Aredia Treatment Clinic and many other specialty clinics where patients undergo procedures that may cause anxiety. They also assist in the pre-operative clinic by allowing patients 2-5 years old to learn about their upcoming surgery. Patients can personalize a doll, dress it up like a doctor and learn about the surgery step-by-step. This helps them become familiar with what to expect when they come in for their procedure.

Child life specialists are present to help with pain coping skills or discomfort during procedures such as IV insertions, blood tests, injections, dressing and cast changes or any acute post-operative pain. For blood tests and IV insertions, the specialists use strategies such as breathwork or deploy distraction tools to redirect the child’s attention. After surgery, patients sometimes experience pain, discomfort or anxiety that medication alone can’t relieve. This is where relaxation and guided imagery sessions come into play.

Healing power that’s portable

Child life specialists
Angie Gugliotti (left)
and Mary Curtin (right)
prep items in sensory
carts such as light toys,
projects, aquariums and
essential oil diffusers.

A recreational therapy student intern helped the child life department develop a special project to enhance their relaxation toolbox. They decided to transform the patient rooms into an oasis of calm to relieve the anxious mind, soothe the spirit, and bring the healing power of beauty to patients and their families. Some sensory items were already stored in a cupboard in the department. Still, it was decided that they would be more readily available for wider use if placed permanently on a cart.

The sensory cart items include various light toys, projects, aquariums and essential oil diffusers. Studies have shown that sensory immersion can reduce stress and anxiety and improve emotional regulation, which is another goal of the sensory cart. The staff has found that allowing patients to choose their items for sensory stimulation and feel in control is more likely to create positive changes in emotional regulation.

The sensory cart is available at Shriners Hospitals for Children Canada, primarily in the inpatient unit, and is making its way to more areas of the hospital. Patients and families give glowing reviews and appreciate having the cart available to them during stressful times. The cart also serves as a useful resource for parents. Since the items on the cart are widely available for purchase, parents can easily replicate the beautiful and calming environment they offer at home.

The Impact of Child Life Specialists and Pre-op Education

Child life specialists understand how being sick or injured affects kids. They are specially trained to make sure young patients and their families feel cared for and supported throughout their journey.

When children need surgery, it’s normal to feel scared and anxious beforehand. These emotions can sometimes lead to changes in behavior after the procedure. But here’s some good news: with the help of child life specialists, we can make this experience a little easier.

In a special research study conducted by Natalie Chicas, MA, Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS), at Shriners Children’s Southern California, staff at Shriners Children’s demonstrated that showing a video to children about what to expect before surgery can help reduce anxiety and prevent negative behavior changes. The study involved 60 children ages 5 to 10 randomly assigned to either watch the video in addition to standard child life support or to receive standard child life support without the video.

Natalie Chicas, MA, CCLS

“It’s not often a child life project gets funded,” said Selina Poon, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Shriners Children’s Southern California. “Natalie’s work is very important and helps children with anxiety before they enter the surgery center.”

The video, designed by Chicas, was proven to significantly decrease preoperative anxiety and postoperative behavior changes in kids having outpatient surgery. And it didn’t stop there. Parents’ anxiety levels were also lowered when they saw how well their children were prepared.

We believe that videos like these, guided by the expertise of our child life specialists, can be amazing tools for helping kids get ready for surgery. We’re here to make sure your child’s experience is as comfortable and positive as possible.

Our team of researchers

Chicas is a child life specialist and a professor at California State University Los Angeles and California State University Northridge. Hannah Knott, Ph.D., CCLS, is another valuable team member, serving as an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Poon and Daphne Lew, Ph.D., MPH, who specializes in biostatistics at Washington University in Saint Louis School of Medicine, also contributed to this study.

At Shriners Children’s, we aim to help children heal and thrive. We are dedicated to providing the best care possible, and our child life specialists play a crucial role in making that happen.