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Providing comfort and support in a strange environment

Published in Child Advocacy Services, Pediatrics, For the Health of It Author: Stephanie McNaughton
Stephanie McNaughton
Child Life Specialist
CentraCare Health – St. Cloud Hospital

CentraCare Health's child life specialists play an essential part of providing family-centered care.

For a child, going to the doctor can be a scary experience, especially when it’s an emergency or when facing a chronic illness. It also can be stressful on parents. During these times, a child life specialist can play a powerful role in easing fears and anxiety for both children and their families.

So who is a child life specialist? What do they do? CentraCare Health has two Certified Child Life Specialists, Brittany Spah and Stephanie McNaughton, and they share about their role and why they love to do what they do.

Q: What is a child life specialist? What job do they perform?

A: Infants, children and youth confront a wide variety of stressful and potentially traumatic events that can impact their ability to cope. These experiences related to health care can lead to feelings of fear, confusion, loss of control and isolation that can inhibit their development and have negative effects on their physical and emotional health and well-being.

Certified Child Life Specialists help these children and their families cope with the stress and uncertainty of acute and chronic illness, injury, trauma, disability, loss and bereavement. Child life specialists value play as an essential, natural part of childhood. Play facilitates healing, coping, mastery, self-expression, creativity, achievement and learning and is vital to a child’s optimal growth and development. Play is an integral aspect in the practice of child life.

A child life specialist has, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree and has completed an internship specializing in health care coping strategies and family dynamics. Child life specialists must pass an exam and are certified through the Association of Child Life Professionals.

Q: What is the role of a child life specialist within the health care team?

A: A child life specialist is part of the multidisciplinary team that makes a pediatric service line unique. Collaborating with the health care team to develop a plan of care, the child life specialist’s role is to advocate for the child’s perception and understanding of the health care experience.

Q: Where do you work? In a hospital? In a clinic?

A: We primarily work in the pediatric unit at St. Cloud Hospital and Pediatric Short Stay unit at the CentraCare Health Plaza. We work with pediatric patients in other units throughout the health care system on a consult basis including Imaging, Center for Surgical Care, Emergency Trauma Center and the pediatric clinic.

We also provide services for children of adult patients who are having a difficult time coping with a loved one’s hospitalization or diagnosis.

Q: Who can benefit from child life support?

A: Pediatric patients, siblings, parents, extended family and staff all benefit from child life support in various ways. By promoting positive coping (the benefit for the child) and advocating for family-centered care (the benefit for the siblings and caregivers), children often display higher levels of cooperation and satisfaction (the benefit for the staff and health care system).

Q: What’s the difference between child life specialist and a pediatric nurse?
A: Child life specialists play a very different role in the care of the child than a pediatric nurse does. While child life specialists have medical knowledge, our education and clinical services focus directly on supporting the coping needs of the patient and their family. We collaborate very closely with pediatric nurses, as well as the rest of the multidisciplinary team, to meet the needs of children and their families.

Q: What kind of reaction do you get from parents when you are there to help their children?
When a child hurts, the parent hurts. When a child is sad, the parent is sad. Likewise, when a child feels empowered, the parent feels empowered. When a child laughs, the parent laughs. When a child has courage, the parent has courage. By addressing the needs of each child in a developmentally appropriate way, we are saying “Your child matters to us” and parents are extremely grateful for that.

Q: What is a “typical” day for a child life specialist?
A: A typical day for a child life specialist depends greatly on the patient needs for the day. Below are a few things we do on a regular basis:

  • Ease a child’s fear and anxiety with therapeutic and recreational play activities
  • Encourage understanding and cooperation by providing preparation and support for children undergoing tests, surgeries, and other medical procedures
  • Advocate for family-centered care
  • Engage children and families by coordinating special events, entertainment and activities
  • Support the needs of siblings or other children who may also affected by an illness or trauma
  • Support families confronting grief and bereavement
  • Provide education and resources for members of the multidisciplinary team
  • Supervise and provide orientation for volunteers
  • Accept and distribute donations for Children’s Center

Q: Why did you decide to become a Child Life Specialist?

Brittany: I always had known I wanted to have a career working with children and was attending college to become a teacher. During this time, I was hospitalized myself and required multiple procedures. Since I was anxious with not knowing what to expect during my stay, I kept thinking about how children and their families must feel when they were in the hospital. I did some research, learned about child life, and was intrigued from the beginning. By discovering more about child life through volunteering on pediatrics, continuing education, and meeting with a CCLS, I immediately knew I had found my calling.

Stephanie: I always knew I wanted work with children and when I was in high school my dad suffered a stroke. He spent five weeks in the hospital and I remember so many feelings of being scared, anxious and not fully understanding what was happening. When I learned about becoming a child life specialist, I knew this was what I wanted to do so I could help to empower other children and families who are in the hospital experiencing unknown procedures, tests and traumas.

I volunteered in a variety of settings working with children of all ages and continued to educate myself about the field of child life. I loved everything about what a child life specialist can offer to families so I continued on the path to becoming a child life specialist!