Helpful Things to Say & Do When Someone's Child is in Hospital

Make this troubling time easier with thoughtful gestures and the right words of encouragement for the parents of a sick child.

Published April 11, 2023
Woman at hospital

Surgery is stressful. Actually, that description doesn't do this period of time justice. Until your child is out of surgery and fully awake, it feels as if you cannot breathe, like you are trapped underwater. For the friends and family of parents whose child has to undergo a hospital procedure, you may be wondering how you can help. We've broken down what to say to someone whose child is having surgery, what phrases to avoid, and thoughtful gifts and gestures to make this trying time easier.

What to Say to the Parents of a Sick Child

Coming up with what to say to someone whose child is having surgery or is sick in the hospital is downright hard. In fact, it can seem impossible to find the right phrasing. But it doesn't have to be. Here are some helpful and meaningful words of encouragement for parents of a sick child.

Comforting and Encouraging Words

  • "I'm here for you."
  • "Let me know what you need."
  • "He/she is in great hands."
    • If you know the name of the surgeon, look them up. Saying something like, "I looked up Dr. Smith, and he went to a fantastic school. I also saw that he is one of the best doctors for hernia repairs. Beau is in great hands" can give mom and dad real reassurance about the person caring for their child.
  • "I'm available if you need a distraction or a listening ear."
  • "Thinking about your family today and sending good vibes to the hospital staff."
  • "I love you."
  • "I am so sorry that you and you family are going through this."
  • "How are you doing?"
  • "What do you need?"
  • "Have you gotten any updates?"
  • "This has to be so scary for you. What can I do to help?"
  • "I am happy to come and be with you in the waiting room. Please let me know if you want company."
  • "I am going to bring a coffee/something to eat by. What would you like?"
  • "______ is such a strong boy/girl. I have faith that they can make it through this."

Note on Prayers and Beliefs

When deciding what to say, it's important to consider the faith of the family as well as your own beliefs. If you don't believe in God, then a phrase that says 'sending prayers' has very little meaning. If you do believe in God, but the family does not, it also brings little comfort, and it shows little regard for their beliefs. Your exact words matter. Don't just say or write a blanket statement to console them.

If you are a person of religious faith and know that the family shares the same beliefs, you can say something like, "Sending prayers for your child, your family, and the medical team caring for them. Praying for comfort and healing during this difficult time."

However, don't just send prayers. Be specific. What are you praying for? Who are you praying for? These specifics take the comment from generic to impactful. For instance, you can say something like, "Asking God to guide the hearts and hands of all medical staff tomorrow and to bring you comfort and strength while you wait for results." This has a much bigger affect then simply saying "Sending prayers for Beau."

After the surgery, you can also say something like, "I am so glad that the surgery wet well. Sending continued prayers of healing and comfort."

What Not to Say to Parents of a Sick Child

While the phrases below may seem helpful, they might not feel that way to families whose child has an illness or is undergoing surgery. As a parent of a child who has had four surgeries in less than three years' time, I can personally tell you that these comments can come across as frustrating and even condescending.

  • "Everything happens for a reason."
  • "This is a really simple procedure."
  • "God has a plan."
  • "They will be fine."
  • "Don't worry."
  • "This will be good for them."
  • "I understand what you are going through."
    • Unless your child has had the exact procedure, do not compare surgeries. Getting tubes put in their ears and having heart surgery are two very different things.
  • "At least (name of their other children) is/are doing well."
  • "Things will be better soon."
  • "You need to be strong for (name of child)."

Remember, you don't know that their child will be fine and the parents are going to worry. Telling them not to feel is not constructive. They also know that this surgery or the medical care may help. That is why they are going through with the procedure or getting care at the hospital. Focus on giving the parents a better belief in the process and outcome, but don't try to predict the future, what the outcome of their illness will be, or justify the need for surgery.

How to Help a Family With a Child In the Hospital

The hardest parts of putting your child through surgery are the wait throughout the procedure, and then the long recovery. This isn't usually a day long process - it is weeks, if not months of special care, limited activity, follow-up appointments, and continued worry. When kids get surgery, they are out of school, they cannot engage in their normal pastimes, and they are many times stuck in bed. Similarly, serious illnesses can have a long road to recovery and a need for ongoing medical care.

Keep this in mind when considering ways to support the family. Here are some simple ways you can lend a helping hand.

Bring a Care Package Before the Surgery

Depending on the procedure, the child may be at the hospital for a day, a week, or even longer. If you know a surgery is coming up, inquire about the details of recovery. This can help with constructing a useful care package. This may also be helpful if a child is going to have an extended hospital stay for a serious illness. Some items that the child may appreciate are:

  • Coloring books, stickers, and crayons
  • Fidget toys
  • Busy bags
  • Sensory jars
  • Jackbox Games (if they have a Nintendo Switch)
  • Books
  • Streaming subscription (if they have a tablet or phone - make sure to okay your choice with parents first)
  • New stuffed animals
  • Board games

Don't forget about mom and dad during surgery and the child's after surgery care! Here are some other items to consider:

  • Snacks and drinks for mom and dad to bring to the hospital
  • Magazines
  • Tylenol
  • Motrin (for babies over 6 months of age)
  • Sugar-free popsicles
Quick Tip

If the child having surgery is at an age where they may play with their surgical wound, another fantastic gift is loose-fitting footless onesie pajamas. Parents can put these on their child backwards to keep them comfy and away from their incision site.

Offer to Drop off Coffee

Hospital coffee usually leaves much to be desired. If mom and dad have a favorite coffee spot, let them know you are grabbing your morning, or afternoon, cup of joe and that you are going to pick them up something to drop off as well. Make it clear that you have no intentions to stay, unless they want the company. The intent is to simply show kindness without disrupting this stressful time.

Bring a Meal

Delivering meal

Before or after surgery or a hospital stay, dropping off a meal is a welcomed gesture. The parents will be exhausted when they finally get home, and cooking is the last thing they want to do. If you drop off the meal ahead of time, making something they can freeze is a great choice. This ensures that it stays fresh until they need it.

When making a meal, consider these tips:

  • Ask if any family members have any food allergies or sensitivities.
  • Prepare the food in a disposable, oven safe container. This removes the worry of washing dishes or making the parents feel like they need to rush to return your dish.
  • Include cooking or heating instructions. We recommend writing these directly on the disposable lid. This ensures that they won't lose the directions if they don't eat the meal the day they recieve it.
  • Inquire about the child's procedure
    • If they are being intubated, make sure the meal is soft. Their throat will be irritated, so crunchy components could cause pain.
    • If they are toddler age and prone to making messes at mealtimes, avoid messy meals. Many times baths are prohibited immediately after surgery. Sticky and saucy options can bring a big headache to parents who have to figure out how to get them clean after the fact.
    • Ask if the child has any food restrictions following their procedure.

Volunteer to Help With Other Kids

Juggling healthy kids is hard. When one gets sick, things can seem like they are crashing down around you. Help to make this hard time easier by offering to babysit, helping with school pick-ups or drop-offs, picking up supplies for school projects, or assisting with homework and bedtime routines. Knowing that someone is caring for their other kids can take a huge weight off of a parent's shoulders. It can also allow them to focus on their sick child, who needs their undivided attention.

Offer to Help with Pets

Woman walking dogs

No matter if the parents are going to be in the hospital for a day or a week, their furry friends will need some care. Take this worry off their plate. Offer to feed, potty, or walk their fur babies. Additionally, if their child has a long recovery ahead, they will probably not have time to walk their pets. This can quickly become a big headache because bored pets equal destructive animals.

Make their life a little easier during a time when long walks are a long shot. Snuffle mats, Kongs, and lick mats can also make mealtimes longer and engage their brains at the same time. This can help to wear them out. Dog and cat toys are another great option. Also, consider purchasing a Rover gift card so that their pups can still get their zoomies out!

Important Considerations:

Not all dogs do well with soft toys. Make sure that you get the best options for their pup by asking parents what toys they prefer to give their pets. While you may think that this is a minor detail, as someone with 130+ pound dogs that think they are goats, let me tell you that an emergency visit to the pet ER is that last thing a parent wants to have to do right before, during, or after their child's surgery.

Need to Know

Before showing up at their doorstep or at the hospital with any gift, ask if the family is social distancing. Many people don't realize that if a child gets even a small cold before surgery, it can cause the procedure to be postponed. There is a lot of prep that parents have to do beforehand, so if you feel even remotely off, keep your distance. If they are comfortable with visitors, offer to wear a mask just in case.

Providing Comfort Begins With Your Presence

A few final things you can consider when someone's dealing with a child in the hospital:

Be Available

Some of the most comforting words for parents of a sick child are simply that you will be available when they need help. Having someone to lean on during these difficult times is imperative to staying sane.

Remember the Child Comes First

It is important to remember that their child is their only priority at this time. If you visit them during the surgery or in the days following the procedure, keep conversations focused on their child and their well-being. Unless they ask for a distraction, avoid small talk or bringing up problems you are dealing with.

Don't Expect to Visit

Don't expect to visit when dropping items off. It's likely that they are very busy, even if it doesn't seem that way. Caring for a child after surgery is a lot of work and it is very stressful. Juggling their child's care, work, their home, and their other children and pets is a lot. Be willing to keep your distance and keep conversations short until their child is cleared for regular activities.

Check in Often

Finally, check in often. The surgery day is simply a start. They will probably still need help and appreciate assistance in the weeks following the procedure. Offer to pick up groceries, help with school drop offs for their other kids, and continue to check on them.

Say and Do Things That Really Help

By taking a little time to be thoughtful and consider the specific situation the family is going through, you can offer words of encouragement and provide comfort through helpful actions. A little support can go a long way in showing you care.

Helpful Things to Say & Do When Someone's Child is in Hospital