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Hospice and Palliative Care for Children

How is Care Different When the Patient is a Child?

As with adults, the goal of palliative care is to relieve pain and other symptoms, provide comfort, and improve quality of life. But there are special considerations when caring for children. When caring for children, the palliative doctor and team will do the following.

Determine where and how much it hurts.

Children may have more difficulty explaining their pain, including where it is and how much it hurts. This is, of course, especially true for babies and toddlers. The palliative doctor and team use child-specific techniques, such as special charts and body language, to identify the pain and determine how bad it is.

Provide the right pain relief.

Providing medicine to treat pain and other symptoms is more challenging in children. Because their bodies are smaller, children process medicine differently. Many can’t take pills. The palliative doctor can prescribe the right medicine in the right doses and suggest ways the child can take it. These may include liquids, special patches, or pills that dissolve on the tongue and don’t have to be swallowed.

Help children understand and cope with the illness.

Depending on their age, children often don’t understand their illness and why they need tests and medicines. The palliative team members can help the child understand what he or she is going through in age-appropriate ways. The palliative team also can suggest ways the child can express himself or herself emotionally, such as through music, play, or art.

Tips for Caring for a Child with Serious Illness

Caring for a child with a serious illness can be overwhelming. Keep the following considerations in mind:

  • Be sensitive to signs that your child wants to talk about the illness and don't change the subject or distract him or her. If your child isn’t ready to talk, however, don't force the conversation.
  • Make your child feel safe by using comforting language.
  • Say "I love you" frequently.
  • Let your child be a kid; let him or her play and enjoy life as much as possible.
  • Continue to be a parent, setting limits as you would if your child were well. Letting your child misbehave can actually make him or her feel out of control and less protected.

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization's patient website, Caring Connections, offers further guidance regarding caring for a child who has a serious illness.

You can also read stories written by patients and families about the role hospice and palliative care play in their lives.