How to Care for Your Child at Home While Their Sibling is in the Hospital

By: Brittany Garrison, MS, Child Life Specialist, Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach

When an infant is hospitalized in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), it can be overwhelming for the parents, but it can be especially difficult when the family has other children at home. Having a sick baby can take a tremendous toll on the healthy sibling(s) just as much as it does on the parents. The stress and anxiety parents feel when a child is ill can also lead to guilty feelings of not responding to the needs of the healthy sibling(s) or not being in the NICU enough for the sick baby.

Knowing how healthy children may be feeling can help parents meet their needs. Often, the child at home may feel:

  • That the baby will die in the hospital
  • Anger toward the parents for spending time at the hospital
  • Neglected
  • Resentment toward their new sibling
  • Anxiety about the future and the health of their sibling

Children can express these feelings in a variety of ways. Some may act out while others try to do nothing wrong. Children experiencing stress may have trouble sleeping or eating, and may have behavioral/attitude changes.

There are several things parents can do to help their healthy child:

  • Don’t feel guilty and work with your child to determine what is best for him or her.
  • Continuously communicate with your child about their needs and emotions.
  • Try to keep life as “normal” as possible by sticking to rules and schedules.
  • Allow others to help you with things you may need at home, like transportation or meals.
  • Plan fun times with your child at home.
  • Partner with the hospital to see what programs are available for support.

The NICU at Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach has several programs in place to help parents not feel guilty when they are spending time at home. The NICU has volunteer “Cuddlers” that provide therapeutic talk and touch to babies when their parents cannot be with them. The Child Life Program has music therapists that work with families in the NICU. The team can write and record songs with the parents, as well as record the parents’ heartbeats to play for the baby when they are not there.

The Child Life Program also offers a variety of programs designed for children who have a sibling in the hospital. Special meetings with a Child Life Specialist are available for siblings to learn more about the NICU, the type of equipment they may see at their sibling’s bedside and prepare them for the intensive care environment.

In addition, the Child Life Program offers Sibling Time, a complimentary program where parents can bring their children for an opportunity to play and relax with other kids going through similar experiences.

The hospitalization experience is often overwhelming for the entire family. When a parent communicates with their children and partners with the sibling support programs at the hospital, they can help alleviate some of the anxiety the child has for their new sibling.

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