The child life specialist prepares young patients and their families for the hospital experience.

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Jennifer Baker

What do you do? As a child life specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, I work with patients and their families to support them in coping with their hospital experience. I provide preparation, education, emotional support and opportunities for play and self expression that help increase coping and reduce fear, anxiety and pain.

How did you get started in that field? I went to college to become a pediatrician. My senior year before applying to medical school, I decided to take some time off before making the commitment. During this break, I decided to volunteer at Seattle Children’s in the child life playroom. It was there that I started to learn more about the child life specialist’s role. I decided this was the perfect career for me as it matched my passion for working with children and working in the medical field.

What’s a typical day like? I receive referrals from the medical teams to help patients or their siblings who are having difficulty coping with any aspect of their hospital stay. For one patient, I may help educate them about their hospitalization or diagnosis. For some patients, I will prepare them for a procedure and create a plan to support the child during the procedure.

I then provide support during the procedure, helping to explain the steps along the way and implement their plan, whether it’s distracting them through play or coaching them through relaxation techniques.

I also prepare siblings prior to visiting their brother or sister for the first time at the hospital. Another big component of my job is providing emotional support and individualized interventions that empower families to face the different challenges of their health-care experience.  

What’s the best part of the job? I think seeing a child smile or succeed at their goals is very rewarding. Working with children in the ICU, they are typically connected to several tubes and lines and can have limited choices or control over their environment. In these cases, helping a child to participate in play or their favorite activity and seeing their face light up despite all that they are going through is very powerful.

What surprises people about what you do? As child life specialists, we use play to help children increase their understanding of their illness and to help with coping. I think people often times think they are “just playing,” but incorporating play in a hospital setting has great value. Play is an essential part of children’s typical development and it helps to facilitate coping, self-expression and learning. It also gives children choices and a sense of control that is often lost in the medical setting.

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