What is a Child Life Specialist?

Updated: Jan 22



Child Life Specialists are professional bubble blowers, toy cleaners, and toy deliverers to hospitalized children. No.... I'm kidding!


But very seriously even some healthcare workers who have worked with Child Life for years aren't aware of the therapeutic interventions Child Life Specialists provide and believe we simply bring crayons, toys, and movies for patients' entertainment purposes. I am here to tell you: there is so much more to what we do! Everything we do is intentional, with therapeutic interventions in mind, and always working toward a goal.


With backgrounds in child development and knowledge about the impact healthcare has on children, Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLS) strive to minimize children's stress and trauma and increase their coping skills during their illness, injury, and hospitalization. As members of the healthcare team, we use research and evidence-based interventions to support children and families throughout their healthcare experiences. Child Life Specialists focus everything on play, since we understand that play is the pathway through which children learn. I know the term "Child Life" can be confusing. Think of it this way, we have lots of knowledge about children and their development. So we are "Child (and their whole) Life Specialists."


You can also think of Child Life Specialists as teachers in the hospital setting. While medical jargon is confusing and the environment is entirely threatening to a child, Child Life Specialists explain to children in their terms and appropriate for their age and developmental level what they will experience during a procedure or what to expect with their new diagnosis. We educate children through play and hands-on learning materials whenever possible.


Child Life Specialists normalize patients' environments by providing therapeutic play opportunities. We value medical play and provide other opportunities for self-expression. We also help with pain management, advocating for more or fewer pharmaceutical interventions to be used based on our assessment of the child's anxiety level and fears.


Child Life Specialists create coping plans with children for upcoming procedures, taking medications and for adjusting to a hospital stay. We're also a support person for the entire family and understand that the whole family unit is affected by these trying times. We work with siblings, helping them to process their sibling's illness or injury. You can imagine that a sibling going to see their brother or sister again (or for the first time, NICU fans out there?) who is now sick or injured may look a bit different and that can be scary for a child to see. If nothing has changed in his or her appearance, surely the cords, machines, and IVs are new and frightening. We prepare children to see their brother or sister again, among many other interventions with siblings.


Child Life Specialists also create legacies with patients who have a poor prognosis and help children cope during end of life. We support families through these tragic times and help them to create keepsakes to have to remember their child by forever.


Child Life is a relatively new field of work, developing mainly in the 1960-70s, however dating back to the 1920s. Currently, every Children's Hospital in the United States has at least one Child Life Specialist on staff! Most Child Life Specialists work in a hospital setting, but you may also find them in a dental office or hospice facility.


The profession looks incredibly different depending on the area of the hospital, whether in the NICU, the Emergency Department, or in Oncology, for example, children and families are supported in various ways by Child Life Specialists! It's almost impossible to describe exactly every Child Life intervention because of the differences depending on the patient population, but I hope you have gained a greater understanding about why this profession is so critical for children and families.


I have witnessed mind-blowing interventions by Child Life Specialists and feel strongly that this field of work is imperative to minimizing fears and trauma. Whether your child has complex medical problems, or heaven forbid you have to take your child to the Emergency Room, there's information here you will find useful!


We don't have any medical issues so this probably isn't for me.


This blog will go beyond the hospital setting. I'll be providing you with tips and tricks to understand your child's development, parenting helps, and many other useful tools you can use at home in your everyday routines with your kids!


However...

Assuming your child goes to the pediatrician, this will apply to you.

Assuming your child has or will have friends who have health problems, this will apply to you.

Assuming your child has fears, medical related or not, this will apply to you.


But let's be honest...

Sometimes we all need a little Child Life help in our lives. I mean, I still have to coach myself through blood draws and flu shots!


Basically, what I'm saying is, if any of you have ever watched Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and have caught yourself wondering if those little tunes aren't just for the kids, but are for the adults too, then you understand that while you think this may not apply to you, you might be surprised.


Because "when you feel so mad that you want to 'ROAR!' take a deep breath and count to four," might just actually be for the toddlers AND the parents!


Join me! Let's learn about kids, how to help them get through really tough things, and learn how to keep our calm as we navigate these tough things with them!


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