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Children's Wisconsin Emergency Department

What to know before going to the emergency department

No parent wants to face an injury or illness that requires a trip to the emergency department (ED). You can’t plan for when emergencies will happen, but with the following tips, you can help reduce anxiety and make the process smoother for both parents and kids.  

My Children’s Wisconsin colleague wrote this blog post that can help you determine if you need the services of an ED or an urgent care, or if your pediatrician’s office can handle your child’s issue. If you determine your child needs an ED, here are a few important things to know before going. 

Stay calm

Stay calm. I understand this can be tough in emergencies. When you panic, your child's anxiety level goes up. Kids take their cues from their parents, so if you can stay calm and reassure your child, hopefully you can help your child stay calm. 

Check with your pediatrician first

If time allows, call your pediatrician's office. Your child’s pediatrician can give advice on the phone and, if you do need to head to the ED, your pediatrician can call ahead and tell the staff to expect you. Keep in mind that even if your pediatrician calls ahead, you may still have to wait if children who require more immediate attention need to be seen first. As always, in a life-threatening emergency, call 911 immediately.

When you can, choose a pediatric ED

If you have access to a pediatric ED, it’s best to go there. A pediatric hospital will have doctors, nurses and other care staff uniquely qualified to treat pediatric emergencies. As we say at Children’s Wisconsin, kids are not just little adults. Children have unique needs due to their growing bodies and a pediatric ED will be equipped and ready to manage these situations.

The Emergency Department at Children’s Wisconsin is a Level I pediatric trauma center, providing the best care to all injured kids. The American College of Surgeons only grants Level I verification to hospitals that provide the highest quality of care and deliver injury prevention, research and education programs to professionals and the public. That means our doctors are specially trained to recognize kid-specific clues other doctors might miss. But our expertise goes beyond medical knowledge. Our staff talk to children in ways they can understand and create child-friendly environments that put them at ease.

Over-the-counter pain meds before you go

In most situations, it is ok to give your child over-the-counter fever or pain medicines before heading to the ED. The medicine will make a huge difference and often makes the examination process a lot easier. Remember to take note of the time and dosage you gave your child, as it will be one of the first questions you are asked in the ED.


It’s important for parents to have an understanding of the timing and order of events leading to your child's visit to share with ED staff.

Last meal

Knowing the time your child last ate and, in some cases, what they ate is important to care staff. The main reason for this information is to protect your child if they needs to have a procedure done and/or receive any medications that require an empty stomach, and determine next steps for the best care for your child. 

Tell your child what to expect

Children seek reassurance from their parents, so it is important to let them know what to expect. Be honest, but also be sensitive to the situation and make sure you talk in a way they can understand. Your child will see a number of new people when they get to the ED. Let your child know that everyone is there to help.

Prepare an emergency file

While you can’t plan emergencies, you can be better prepared with what I call an “emergency file.” I recommend parents keep this info in the notes section of their smartphone. Things to include in this file:

  • Health insurance info

  • Your child's pediatrician and any other doctors' names and contact information

  • Known allergies

  • Past medical and surgical history

  • List of current medications, including prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and supplements

Leave siblings at home

If possible, make arrangements so you don't have to bring young siblings to the ED with you. This way, you can focus on the needs of your child who needs medical attention. The process can often take a while to ensure your child is getting the best care for their particular needs and it can be tough for other siblings to sit still while their brother or sister is being seen. While at the ED, parents need to stay with their child and will be unable to easily tend to the needs of siblings. In some cases, children are admitted to the hospital and parents are strongly encouraged to stay.

A favorite toy 

While pediatric EDs are set up to comfort kids, a favorite small toy, blanket, book, etc. can help take your child's mind off the pain and be less anxious in an unfamiliar place.

Be your child’s advocate

As a parent, you know your child best. If you think your child is in pain or needs something, say so. If you don't think they are ready to go home, tell a member of the ED team. Do not hesitate to ask questions or have answers repeated. Take notes, if you feel more comfortable.

Be patient

As I mentioned earlier, you and your child will meet lots of different people. Repeating your story and providing background to each person who cares for your child can feel like “Groundhog’s Day,” but it is essential to getting the best care for your child.

Follow your care plan

When you are discharged from the ED, follow the care plan listed on the discharge papers. It may require you to follow up with a specialist or prescription medication. Additionally, it’s always good to follow up with your pediatrician's office and inform them about the emergency visit. Many EDs will also send a report to your pediatrician's office if you ask them to. Check to see whether your pediatrician has received the report or if they have any further recommendations.

Hopefully your children won’t need the care of an ED, but if they do, Children’s Wisconsin is here for you.