What is a Child Life Specialist?

| Last updated on February 14, 2024

What is a Child Life Specialist?

Going to the hospital can be an anxiety-inducing and confusing experience for children. 

Poked and prodded, getting imaging scans, surgery, or other medical procedures leads to fear, stress, and emotional outbursts. It also makes parents feel overwhelmed when navigating the healthcare system with their sick child.

That's why child life specialists serve such a vital role in pediatric care. These healthcare professionals are there to ease fear and anxiety while providing coping strategies tailored to the child's developmental stage. They empower children with age-appropriate information about diagnoses, tests, and treatments using educational and play-based techniques. Ultimately, their compassionate care creates a more positive healthcare journey for young patients and their loved ones.

What Do Child Life Specialists Do? 

Child life specialists are experts in child development who help infants, children, youth, and families manage challenging experiences related to healthcare and hospitalization. They have specialized university training and must pass a national certification exam from the Child Life Certifying Committee.

The child life profession began in the 1920’s, when healthcare teams recognized hospital environments were not created with kids in mind. Early child life programs are focused on educational play and recreation; the field later expanded to provide emotional care through preparation for medical procedures. This evolution aimed to minimize fear and reduce psychological trauma.

Certified child life specialists continue this critical work by being patient advocates. They ensure medical teams follow family-centered care best practices. Child life specialists also educate staff on developmental needs, push for child-friendly surroundings, and empower patients through knowledge.

What are their duties and responsibilities?

On a day-to-day basis, child life specialists perform interventions that ease the treatment journey for pediatric patients. Responsibilities and activities include:

Medical Play: Using therapeutic toys like doctor kits, dolls, and plastic medical equipment to demonstrate procedures in non-threatening ways. This teaches children what to expect and empowers them through familiarity.

Education: Explain diagnoses, tests, and treatments simply using diagrams, models, picture books, videos, and other kid-focused methods. Also, teach coping strategies like breathing techniques.

Preparation: Guiding patients through medical procedures with step-by-step descriptions allows them to touch equipment and practice with medical play.

Distraction: Using games, videos, music, guided imagery, or toys engages a child's senses during unpleasant procedures to "pull focus" elsewhere.

Legacy Building: Creating hand/foot molds, art projects, journals, or memory books helps chronicle the healthcare journey, particularly for long hospital stays.

Advocacy: Identify and request child-friendly surroundings (e.g., playgrounds), push kids to remain with parents, and educate the care staff.

Routine Support: Organize events (birthdays, holidays), ensure homework is complete, and provide transitional support.

Support Siblings/Family: Give age-appropriate information and support to siblings. They also train parents and caregivers on medical play, distraction, and how to coach their kids through the procedure.

Bereavement: Providing therapeutic interventions for grieving pediatric patients and siblings surrounding death or a terminal diagnosis.

Child life specialists take a holistic approach as patient and family advocates by supporting their emotional, social, psychological, and developmental needs. 

Why Are Child Life Specialists Important?

Research shows child life specialists provide immense benefit for young patients and hospitals. Utilizing their compassionate care services leads to:

Less Fear and Anxiety for Pediatric Patients

Child life preparation and tailored education significantly minimize fear of the unknown. Therapeutic play gives children a sense of control. Distraction redirects focus during unpleasant procedures. Combined, these techniques lower anxiety, confusion, and emotional upset.

Increased Cooperation

Children who understand procedures tend to cooperate more than unprepared patients. This allows for smoother administration of tests, scans, and treatments. Better cooperation also leads to faster healthcare delivery.

Reduced Trauma

Age-appropriate preparation prevents long-term trauma surrounding frightening or painful medical experiences. Creating legacies further minimizes the risk of psychological damage from extended hospital stays.

Shorter Recovery

Reducing fear, anxiety, and confusion can support the healing process. 

Greater Satisfaction

Hospital staff satisfaction can improve when a child life specialist is a member of the care team.

Adherence to Best Practices

By training staff on family-centered care needs and tailoring medical interventions, child life specialists ensure adherence to pediatric best practices.

Where Do Child Life Specialists Practice?

Certified child life specialists work in various pediatric healthcare settings, including:

  • Children's hospitals
  • General hospitals with a pediatric unit
  • Rehabilitation facilities
  • Hospice and Palliative care
  • Medical/dental clinics
  • Government family health programs
  • Crisis and disaster response teams
  • Specialized camps for ill children
  • Private pediatric practice

They serve as core members of interdisciplinary medical teams in both hospital and community environments.  Child life specialists often collaborate with social workers, psychologists, doctors, nurses, therapists, and teachers and use medical technology developed for sensitive skin. 

How Do Child Life Specialists Help During Medical Procedures?

When children face medical tests, imaging scans, surgeries, or other hospital procedures, certified child life specialists utilize various techniques to minimize fear and emotional upset. Their interventions aim to empower patients through clear education, provide therapeutic distraction, and teach effective coping strategies.

Common tasks performed by child life specialists include:

Step-By-Step Process Explanations: Break down procedures into simplified step-by-step descriptions using language/methods suitable to the patient's age and development stage. Allowing questions.

Demonstrations with Dolls: Using medical dollhouses, teddy bears dressed as doctors, or model demonstrations of the equipment/room setup helps visually familiarize children with the healthcare experience.

Trying Equipment: Showcasing authentic materials lets kids touch procedural equipment like oxygen masks. Testing and experimenting demystify scary-looking tools through tactile exposure. Using medical technology that is safe and gentle, such as IV Clear or CovaClear IV. 

Practice Routines: Role-playing or rehearsing gives a sense of control and predictability. Practicing with therapeutic medical toys on teddy bears, dolls, or even the child themselves prepares in a child-friendly manner.

During medical procedures, child life specialists coach patients via:

Distraction Techniques: Engaging other senses helps pull focus towards games, guided imagery, music, counting, toy play, or bubbles for short-duration treatments. Children may listen to playlists, watch movies or shows for longer procedures like MRIs, and paint virtually within scanners.

Relaxation Training: Teaching and leading patients through deep breathing, muscle relaxation, or meditative techniques provides active coping strategies. Combined with distraction to relax the body and allow the mind to dissociate.

Coaching Verbal Cues: Giving encouraging and empowering instructions helps motivate patients through tests. Guiding children through timed counting, talking about happy places, calling out procedure steps already completed, or celebrating successes helps frame treatment progression.

Comfort Positioning: Allowing children comforting objects like stuffed animals or blankets, optimal access to parents through physical touch, and stable positioning alleviate comfort.

Through these tailored, developmentally appropriate strategies, child life specialists transform frightening hospital situations into more tolerable events for kids. Their ability to minimize emotional upset facilitates smoother administration of clinical care.

How Do Child Life Specialists Benefit Healthcare Teams?

While child life specialists primarily champion pediatric patients, their unique expertise and interventions can enhance other providers' abilities to administer clinical services. They essentially facilitate more harmonious, effective treatment plan delivery through:

1. Patient Advocacy

Pushing for family-centered, developmentally supportive care models aligned with best practices for children's hospitals and general medical institutions.

2. Staff Education

Training nurses, doctors, and technicians on age-appropriate communication approaches, addressing misconceptions about child reactions, and tailoring environmental/administrative practices to lower stressors.

3. Increased Cooperation

Preparing children for procedures through medical play and tailored education naturally fosters willingness to participate in required but unpleasant treatments.

4. Coping Skills Integration

Teaching patients/families tangible relaxation, distraction, guided imagery, and practice techniques allows the continuity of emotional support systems inside and outside the hospital.

5. Psychosocial Screening

Flagging maladaptive reactions or emerging crises for early intervention promotes overall well-being. Multidisciplinary collaboration is strengthened through such responsibility sharing.

Because certified child life specialists take an egalitarian, strengths-based perspective to inform care administration, they organically boost provider abilities and system efficiencies. Healthcare teams function smarter with child life integrated.

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The Bottom Line

Ultimately, child life specialists help infants, children, and youth navigate healthcare's often mystifying and frightening journey through compassionate, developmentally attuned interventions. Blending clinical play, therapeutic recreation, education, and tailored coping strategies transforms pediatric patient experiences from scary to tolerable.

Child life specialists also champion the entire family by training parents and siblings on supporting patients while providing bereavement assistance. They empower children through knowledge and familiarity with medical environments. This allows kids to participate cooperatively in their own care.