Visiting the GP surgery or hospital with a child can be a bit of an ordeal. Many patients in the UK are spending increased amounts of time in waiting rooms and keeping children entertained and calm throughout can be a challenge.

If you’ve got a private health insurance plan, you can likely rely on shorter waiting times, but when accessing care through the NHS the waits are often longer. Winter is well known as the time of year when common illnesses are spreading fast and pressures on the NHS are at their highest. Thus, waiting rooms can be busier than ever, leading to more delays in seeing a doctor, nurse, or healthcare professional.

In November 2022, only 68.9% of patients were seen within four hours according to NHS England. This is down from 81.4% in November 2019 and well below the NHS standard of seeing 95% of patients within four hours – a target that hasn’t been met since July 2015. Across the UK waiting times can vary even more, with 56.9% of patients seen within 4 hours in Scotland. Many children struggle to sit still on the best of days, and the room can be an overwhelming place where they’re surrounded by strangers, noise and movement.

There are, however, many things you can do to keep your baby, toddler or child entertained and calm. Here we’ll discuss how to prepare for time spent in the waiting room.


1. Keep all necessary supplies on hand

Before heading out for a GP or hospital appointment, try and make sure to have a bag packed and prepared with all the essentials you might need while waiting. Along with changing supplies for babies and young toddlers, here are some things to remember:

  • Wipes and tissues
  • A cold compress to help ease symptoms of fever
  • Sick bags in case they’re unwell
  • Medication if appropriate
  • A change of clothes in case of accidents
  • A phone charger (for you or your child’s device)

Don’t forget to also pack water and some snacks – the last thing you need is a frustrated youngster who is also hungry. 


2. Talk to your child beforehand

If they are old enough to understand, it’s best to prepare your child before heading to an appointment by explaining to them what will happen.

This can include explaining what the waiting room may look like, who’s going to be there, how they’ll have to sign into reception before taking a seat, and how there might be some toys for them to play with.

You may also decide to talk about the treatment itself. For example, if they are going for an injection, tell them that it will feel like a little pinch. If you’ve got teddies and a toy doctor’s kit at home, you could use it to help demonstrate what the doctor or nurse will do, like listen to their heart or take blood pressure. Use your judgement to decide how much detail you go into, based on how much your child will understand or how much they tend to get scared. If they are worried, it’s important to validate their feelings and say it’s okay to feel a little nervous before seeing a doctor. Another top tip is to take a teddy to the appointment itself and ask the doctor or nurse to give it a little checkup too.

Sitting in the waiting room can be much less of a stress for you and your child if they feel like they know what’s going to happen.


3. Get used to the space

After you’ve arrived in the waiting room and checked in at reception, if possible and within reason, take your child for a little tour around the waiting room.

Let them explore and make a note of where everything is and try to answer any questions they have about who all the people are or what everyone is doing. Show them where they’re going to be going when their name is called. Getting used to the space and having some familiarity with the waiting room makes it much less of a scary place to be.


4. Distract

Most waiting rooms will come equipped with a selection of children’s toys, but it’s a good idea to bring a few of your own as well to keep kids entertained and distracted from any worries or boredom.

Try bringing some books to read with your child or easy activities that don’t require much space or equipment, like colouring or activity books. Sometimes, a screen can also help you both get through the time in the waiting room.  They can sit quietly and watch their favourite shows or play games. A favourite toy, teddy, or blanket can also provide much-needed comfort.

For children with sensory needs, the waiting room can be even more stressful and there might not be much you can do to control the environment or lessen the amount of stimulation. In that case, sensory or fidget toys or headphones to listen to music can help keep them calm.


5. Look after yourself too

As a parent dealing with waiting rooms and appointments for babies and children, you’ve probably felt stressed, worried, or anxious at some point. That fear and anxiety can easily pass to your child, so it’s important to do your best to try and appear calm and in control of the situation.

Staying hydrated, bringing a pen and paper to jot down any important notes, and having a plan for how you’re going to get to and from the appointment are great ways to alleviate stress. You may find breathing exercises a helpful way to stay calm.

Even with the right planning, some things will not go according to plan. Your child may decide that they don’t want to read their book or play with their toy. There may be an emergency which means you need to wait longer than usual. Being prepared beforehand by following these tips means that the time you do spend waiting is as calm and stress-free as possible.