The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that child life services are an important component of pediatric hospital-based care. Hospitalization is often a very stressful experience for children and presents a challenge above and beyond providing medical care at children's hospitals, which generally serve patients from infancy to age 18 whose conditions range from minor to life-threatening and whose stays run from overnight to weeks or even months. And that challenge becomes more difficult during the holiday season.

If a child is in the hospital, they're taken away from the annual routines and special activities of the season. Depression and anxiety are fairly common among children with health issues, particularly those that require them to be hospitalized, and the holidays are usually a more difficult time for children to be here. Cindy Mahan, manager of the Child Life Department and her staff are dedicated to helping children and their families cope with all aspects of hospitalization and making their experiences at the hospital as positive as possible.

There are so many things happening in December at school, church and in the community that does not happen at any other time of year, and if you're in the hospital you're not able to participate. So we try to provide opportunities that are similar to or maybe even more exciting than what the children would do normally, Mahan said. We have an incredibly generous community. This is definitely our busiest time of the year for donations, but what we receive around Christmas also supports what we do for the children throughout the year, he added.

That list includes activities around Easter, Halloween and other holidays; birthday parties for individual patients; an off-site prom for teenagers in the Hematology/Oncology Unit; appearances by sanctioned "Star Wars" characters and window washers dressed in superhero costumes; and visits by members of Wake Forest University athletic teams. The Child Life Department also maintains five age-appropriate activity rooms, an outdoor terrace with a garden and playground equipment, and a stockpile of toys, games, electronics and other items for patients' in-room use.

The child life program includes weekly visits by therapy dogs and other therapeutic activities, and the staff specialists have clinical responsibilities, including preparing children for medical procedures and treatments; conducting pre-surgery tours; teaching strategies to reduce anxiety and enhance cooperation with care providers; providing support and alternative focus before, during and after medical procedures; and offering information and support to patients' parents, siblings and other family members.

It is really valuable to have a lot of psychosocial support for children while they're in the hospital. Psychological issues can definitely exacerbate an on-going medical problem, and relieving those problems can have positive effects on health.Research studies have shown that child life programs and paediatric psychology services are associated with improved quality and outcomes in care, increased patient and family satisfaction, shorter hospital stays, decreased use of sedatives and pain relievers, greater adherence to doctor's orders and better overall health and well-being.