Abigail Luther, child life specialist in the Infant Toddler Unit (ITU) at Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH), spends her days making time in the hospital easier for pediatric patients and their parents or caregivers. Children learn through play. Trained and accredited child life specialists use the most effective play-centered techniques to help young patients understand everything from the meanings of medical terminology to the purpose of the monitors in the hospital room.
Every day is different in the hospital. New patients enter, and others are discharged. Even for those young children undergoing longer-term care - like many in the ITU - individual needs change as they prepare for or respond to treatments. Luther's shift begins by coordinating with the nurse in charge and reviewing the status of all the patients in the ITU. She then creates a plan for visiting specific patients and coordinates when hospital volunteers will spend time with patients.
Making the Rounds
With a plan in place, Luther begins visiting patients. Child life specialists support both the children and their caregivers. In the ITU, it's common for an infant to be connected to a machine that helps them breathe, and the parents may be nervous about jostling the machinery or tubes.
"Sometimes medical equipment can be intimidating to parents, making interacting with the baby a little scary," Luther said. "My job is to normalize this equipment and help support healthy bonding, coping and development."
Giving caregivers a basic understanding of how the machines work helps ease nerves. Fostering a calm environment helps set the stage for learning and makes patients and caregivers more receptive to treatments.
Play with Purpose
When Luther does an activity like coloring or playing with a patient, she often has more than fun in mind. Infants need specific exercises to help their bodies and brains grow. Child life specialists provide those activities for young children confined to the hospital.
"It is my job to engage them in play that will provide opportunities for developmental stimulation to help them reach developmental milestones. Some of these interventions include tummy time, practicing sitting up, reading books or singing together!"
As the patients get older, the activities are modified to fit the age and ability of the patient. Luther may teach a toddler how to walk or use a doll as a comforting tool to help explain medical terms like peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line or tracheostomy.
“This helps give caregivers a basic understanding which allows them to retain more in-depth information given to them later by other medical team members.”
In addition to coordinating activities and volunteers, Luther creates feeding schedules. She helps caregivers stick to the program so their child meets healthy weight goals.
End of Shift
Even the end of a shift is an important opportunity for child life specialists to help patients. Sometimes, the workday ends in a celebration because a patient is being discharged. In those cases, Luther steps into the role of event planner and organizes the party. Whether or not the day ends with the celebration of a patient being discharged, it is still a significant moment.
“At the end of the day, I say goodbye to each of my chronic patients to support a therapeutic relationship.”
More About Child Life Specialists
Recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics and accredited by the Association of Child Life Professionals, our child life team includes certified child life specialists and patient activity specialists. Arkansas Children’s helps train child life specialists through practicum and internship experiences with affiliated colleges and universities.
Learn more about becoming a child life specialist at Arkansas Children’s.
In our Champions Series, we answer the question, “What does it mean to champion children?” by providing a closer look at the daily practices and routines of Arkansas Children’s team members as they help make kids better today and healthier tomorrow.