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Hospital  >  Departments  >  Critical Care Medicine  >  Navigating the ICU  >  Practical information I need to know  >  Can children visit their loved one in the ICU?

Can children visit their loved one in the ICU?

Children are welcome in the ICU to visit immediate relatives, such as grandparents, parents and siblings. A visit can be helpful for both the child and the patient. But do not bring children who have a contagious illness, such as a cold or flu, because this puts the patient at risk. Help maintain good infection control by removing outside jackets and watches, and washing hands before entering and when leaving.

What should I consider before visiting with children?

This can be a hard decision as you may be concerned about the potential impact on the child. Research shows that children over the age of 4 generally find visiting sick relatives helpful by increasing their understanding about what’s happening to their loved one and reducing their feelings of anxiety and separation. However, children should not be forced to visit if they do not wish to do so. Members of the health care team can provide practical suggestions in managing the visit.

What are the age related considerations?

Infants less than 1 year do not have fully developed immune systems. That means they are at risk for picking up an infection in the ICU. If they start crying, it is best to leave the ICU.

Toddlers less than 3 years often want to see close relatives. They, however, may not be able to understand what is happening and find it a scary and overwhelming place. They should always be accompanied by a caregiver who can explain what they see. The visit should usually be kept short, to just a few minutes.

Children of ages 3 to 6 may either benefit from a visit or find it upsetting. They should be accompanied by a caregiver who can prepare them for the visit. Children of this age may wish to draw a picture for the relative to keep at the bedside.

School aged children should be encouraged to ask questions about their visit. They should not be left by themselves in the ICU.

Teens may fully understand the situation. Still, it is usually important to support them and ensure that they are accurately informed about their loved one.

What if I don’t want my child to visit?

If you choose not to have the child visit, try to keep them involved by giving them clear information about their relative. The child can be encouraged to draw pictures or record a message for the patient.

How to prepare children for visit?

  • Tell them what to expect – the environment of the ICU (the patients in the other beds, the smells, the noise and the machines) and how their relative might look. It may be helpful to use a diagram of a patient showing the various equipment as a tool to have this discussion.
  • Tell the child not to play with any of the equipment, tubing or wires and not to sit on the bed.
  • Talk to the staff who can assess the potential impact of the visit and appropriately prepare the patient (e.g. they might wish to cover the patient with a sheet to prevent the child from seeing some of the lines).

How to help children cope at this difficult time?

  • Visits by children should usually be kept to 5-10 minutes at a time; if longer, they might become bored and restless.
  • Ensure that you have contacted the child’s daycare or school so they are aware of the critically sick relative and can provide additional support and understanding to the child.
  • Try to keep the child’s routine as much as possible (including school attendance, seeing friends).
  • Make sure the child is looked after by someone they know, so they feel safe.
  • Update them on the situation as honestly as possible. Do not provide false reassurances, and if you are not sure of something try to convey this message: “S/he is very ill…the doctors are doing all they can to help right now…” Keep in mind that children can ask very blunt questions, so adults need to be prepared to respond to them.
  • Encourage children to keep a diary of their experiences and feelings.
  • Some children might begin to act younger than they are, for example they can start sucking their thumb. This is often a normal reaction to stress. If you are concerned about their behavior, ask to speak to the hospital social worker or the family doctor.
  • If the patient dies, the child might need special attention. The social worker can connect you to services that can help, such as bereavement counselling.
  • Talk about the visit and the relative’s condition once you are back at home; the child might have questions to talk through.

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Critical Care Medicine

Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre
2075 Bayview Avenue, 
D-wing, 1st floor
room D1 08
Toronto, ON M4N 3M5

Phone: 416-480-4522
Fax: 416-480-4999

For information about patients admitted to Sunnybrook's Intensive Care Units, please contact the unit through the hospital switchboard at 416-480-6100