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Parents of sick kids are essentially patients, need more attention

Hospitals will invite parents to remain with their sick children but they aren't given enough thought during their stay, an expert on childhood stress has argued.

Stress directly affects parents’ ability to understand information, make decisions regarding their child’s care and look after themselves for the sake of their child, said Professor Evalotte Morelius, an Edith Cowan University researcher.

“The parents of sick kids in hospital are themselves patients in a sense, plagued with worries about their child, [and are] uncertain and powerless,” she said. “This is known but largely unmeasured.

“Parental stress in hospital needs more attention because it can affect the care of children.”

Morelius’s call comes on the back of her research that showed parents of sick children in hospital experienced higher-than-average acute stress levels.

For her study, she collected saliva samples of 31 parents staying with their children in paediatric wards to look at cortisol levels.

Those remaining in hospital with their kids had low morning cortisol levels, suggesting they’d been exposed to high stress the day prior.

And it’s not just concern over the wellbeing of their child that is stressing out parents. Morelius said they’re also grappling with absence from work, financial impacts, general uncertainty and sleep loss.

Another stressor for the parents in the study could have been the waiting game – the authors said it has been described the most stressful aspect of the hospital experience for family members as they struggle to maintain a balance between negative and positive thoughts.

“It’s well known that stress can cause stress-related diseases and affects cognitive abilities such as memory, learning new things and behaviour,” Morelius said.

“We have previously shown that waking several times during the night when in hospital affects parents’ mood and cognition, making them less concentrated and alert.

She would like to see interventions to prevent and address parents’ stress as it would help them to provide the support and comfort their children need in order to recover.

The study’s authors wrote: “Their constant support is crucial for the child and moreover to decrease the risk of stress‐related consequences in parents of sick children.”

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