Taking Your Child to the ER

Mother holds hand of sick child in hospital bed as ER doctor in white coat with stethoscope looks on.

Taking your child to the ER can be a nerve-wracking experience. It’s hard to be rational and calm when your child is injured or experiencing frightening symptoms. The first thing to think about is which emergency room to choose. If you live in a city with a choice of emergency rooms, pick an ER you know to be child-friendly. Or call the doctor’s office for advice on the best ER for your child.

The ideal time to study up on the right ER for your child is actually before there is an emergency. Ask friends about their children’s ER experiences to get recommendations. At your child’s regular check-up ask your child’s pediatrician for advice on the most child-friendly, area ER.

Another way to prepare in advance for emergencies is for parents to keep and maintain a notebook with all the child’s health information. In the notebook, you can list all past and present illnesses, vaccinations, allergies, current medications, and the time of your child’s most recent dose of medicine. These are things the ER staff will want to know. Keep the notebook in your bag so you never lose it and will always have it close at hand, even (and especially) when you’re running out the door to the emergency room.

By the same token, always keep your child’s health-insurance card or information in the same space in your wallet. That way you’ll never have to waste precious time searching for the card during an emergency. It will be one less thing to think about.

Not sure whether your child should go to the ER at all? It could be a call to the doctor can help you decide. For more on this topic, read When to Take a Child to the ER.

Expect a Long Wait

Two kids and a dad (from waist down) in ER waiting room

Once you decide to go to the ER, be aware that a visit to the emergency room may mean a wait of many hours. Make sure you bring change with you, as cell phones are sometimes banned in hospitals. Change is also handy when you want something from the vending machine. Bring toys or activities, and something to eat and drink (check with hospital staff before offering a child food and drink).

Unless your child is three months old or younger, you can feel free to treat a child’s fever before you leave for the ER. It helps the child feel better and can make the wait easier. Bring some more fever-reducing medication along with you to the hospital, in case the wait is many hours long. Your child may need another dose before he is seen.

Try not to bring brothers and sisters to the ER. If you can find a sitter or someone to watch your child’s siblings, it’s best not to bring them along to the ER. Your child needs your full attention. Also, why expose children unnecessarily to diseases that are floating around the hospital?

Review the Facts

As you make your way to the ER, mentally review the facts of your child’s illness or injury, and write them down in your child’s health notebook if your hands are free. That way you’ll be ready to tell the nurse or doctor what has happened and how you’ve treated your child until now. Think back to when your child became ill or injured and make a note of the day and time. If your child has swallowed poison, bring the bottle with you to the ER.

Think over the progression of your child’s illness or injury: how has it changed over time? Has your child had a fever or a rash? Has your child gone to the bathroom? How many times a day? What medications, if any, has your child taken? Does your child have any allergies? These are all things the ER staff will want to know.

Prepare your child on the way to the ER. Tell the child that a doctor (not the pediatrician he knows) will be examining him. At each step of the ER experience, explain the truth about what will happen next. A clear, honest explanation makes your child less anxious. Anxiety over the unknown worsens pain and fear. Knowing what will happen next, even if it’s going to hurt, relieves that anxiety, and helps your child feel better.

Eating and Drinking

On arriving at the ER, ask if your child is allowed to eat and drink. Sometimes you’ll be asked not to give your child food and drink. Some procedures, for instance some CT scans and blood tests, have to be done while fasting. It can be difficult to ignore a child’s pleas to drink and eat, but remember it’s in her own best interests. Reassure her as much as possible.

Remember that a long wait is a good sign. It means your child’s condition isn’t so serious that it cannot wait a bit for treatment. Try to be patient and calm. If your child seems to be getting worse, ask that he be reassessed.

ER waiting room animation

Never lie to a child. Don’t say, “It won’t hurt,” if you know it will. If you know something will hurt, say so, but add something to give the child hope. You might say, “It will hurt, but only for as long as it takes to blink your eye.”

Your Child’s Advocate

If your child needs stitches, a shot, or a blood test, ask if numbing cream can be applied to the area, first. The cream takes about 20 minutes to kick in. If your child’s pain medication is wearing off, let the staff know. Remember that you are your child’s advocate, if you don’t speak up, no one else will.

Do what you can to comfort your child and ease her fears. Hold her, talk to her. Try to keep her from seeing anything scary, such as a tray of instruments or a bloody patient. Read to your child or play a game like “I Spy” to take her mind off of her pain and fear.

Stay by your child’s side as much as possible. Ask if you can stay with your child for procedures like blood tests and x-rays. But if you feel like you’re going to pass out from seeing blood, for instance, make sure you inform the staff.

Your ER Questions

Doctors and nurses seem so busy parents may be afraid to disturb them with their questions. But it’s a parent’s right to ask questions and receive answers. If you want to know why this or that test has been ordered, go ahead and ask. Just be polite.

Make sure you understand the discharge instructions. Are you sure you know when the bandage can be taken off? How to clean your child’s wound? Do you know what to do if your child’s symptoms don’t get better or he feels worse? Do you know how to give your child his medication?

The hospital often recommends a follow-up visit with the child’s pediatrician. Bring your child’s discharge papers with you to the visit. Even if your child needs no follow up visit, drop off a copy of the child’s discharge papers at the doctor’s office. That way, a record of the visit will be included in your child’s medical history.

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Author: Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12, communications writer, and education blogger at the Kars4Kids blog.

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