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Child Life Coordinator Jennifer Guilliams on providing comfort, support and fun to kids at Kentucky Children's Hospital

Jennifer Guilliams and a young patient
Blog

/ by UK HealthCare

March is Child Life Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of our Child Life Specialists and the care, instruction and fun that they bring to our patients and their families.

We recently sat down with Jennifer Guilliams, the Child Life Coordinator at Kentucky Children’s Hospital, who shared how her team supports our young patients so that they can get back to being happy, healthy kids.

What does it mean to have a Child Life Program at KCH?

Our Child Life Program helps us provide state-of-the-art healthcare services that promote the well-being of Kentucky’s children and reinforces our commitment to care for the whole child. 

The Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children’s hospitals provide child life specialists for “improved quality, outcomes and patient and family experiences,” and our commitment to quality and implementing these best practice standards is evident throughout Child Life Services at KCH.

KCH having a child life program means that we recognize that hospitalization is not just about providing medical care. Children are particularly vulnerable to the stresses of hospitalization and illness. Because children process these events much differently than adults, it is essential to their healing that we provide professionals who can understand their fears and help them successfully understand and manage these experiences. This is what child life services at KCH does.

Certified Child Life Specialists are trained professionals with expertise in helping children and their families overcome life’s most challenging events. They provide children with the individual tools they need to cope during hospitalization so they can get better fast.

What does it mean to be a child life specialist?

When you see a child life specialist in the hospital, he or she may be carrying things that do not look like they fit within the hospital environment, like bubbles, dolls, video games, toys, etc. Most people would say that child life specialists are the “play people” in the hospital. However, we have a secret: play is the most important tool in childhood! 

For a child, play is the way they process big emotions, learn about the world around them and manage stress. Play is a child’s “work.” We play because that is how a child feels safe, how a child learns to understands medical experiences and how a child expresses fears. 

Child life specialists understand the value of using play as a tool to navigate the hospital experience. Child life specialists use bubbles to help a child take deep breaths and relax. Child life specialists use superheroes and specialized dolls to help a child understand their medical experience or illness. Child life specialists use tea parties or silly straws to help a child feel safe to drink after surgery. Child Life specialists use musical and light up toys to visually distract a child during a painful procedure. Child life specialists use paint, crayons and crafts to help a child express feelings related to hospitalization. 

Through play, a child life specialist can help a child positively cope during hospitalization. 

How does child life help patients deal with diagnoses or preparation for testing or procedures?

One of the most important elements of a child life program is child-focused preparation and procedural support during hospitalization and medical experiences. By focusing on the child as an individual, our child life specialists use play interventions to ensure that each child understands their illness and medical procedures that they may experience. Child life specialists guide a child through therapeutic and medical play interventions to help them feel less scared, to practice relaxation and coping techniques for stressful time, and to help each child understand what is happening to their body.  

Child life specialists can help a child or teen identify ways to manage painful or scary procedures through blowing techniques, relaxation and distraction. Child life specialists are present during procedures to provide coaching and support interventions that can help a child get through the tough times. Such interventions have proven to decrease emotional distress, reduce need for pain medications, decrease length of stay, and increase positive coping during and after hospitalization.  

Child life programs like ours play a major role in calming a child’s fears and helping parents feel better about the entire experience. 

How does child life support the entire family, including parents and siblings?

As child life specialists, we understand that a child’s hospital stay can be stressful for the entire family. For a family to feel connected and able to support their hospitalized child, it is important that the family partners with the medical team to care for the child. We understand that the family is the constant in the child’s life, is the child’s support system, and helps provide strength for the child. 

By including caregivers and siblings in preparation and play interventions, we can assist them with coping and adjustment to new diagnosis or lengthy hospitalization. 

Our team provides specialized interventions to prepare siblings for visits to the intensive care unit and neonatal intensive care unit so they feel included and understand what is happening to their brother or sister. We can teach caregivers specific comfort holds to ensure that they are able to provide comfort to their child during painful procedures. 

Family focused interventions of the child life specialists ensure that the entire family is an integral part of the health care team.

What made you pursue this as a career? What do you like most about your job?

I became a child life specialist because I wanted to help children and families experiencing illness and hospitalization. It has been a privilege to be given permission to comfort and support a child and their family during a tremendously vulnerable time in their lives. Being a child life specialist has given me an inside view of true strength, beauty and resilience. 

What I like most about my job are the little wins! Seeing a frightened child play with a toy I have provided. Watching a child swell up with pride when he or she has positively coped during a difficult procedure. Being a listening ear for a teenager who is adjusting to a chronic illness diagnosis. 

All of these and many more experiences with children and families make this job extremely rewarding. And I get to do all this while focusing on and promoting PLAY! 

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