The waiting game

Visiting the GP or hospital with a small child can be a challenge, especially as patient waiting times seem to get longer and longer. Check out our parent’s survival guide to GP and hospital waiting rooms, devised by Westfield Health* to make your experience a little less fraught!


In November 2022, only 68.9 per cent of hospital patients were seen within four hours according to NHS England. This is down from 81.4 per cent in November 2019 and well below the NHS standard of seeing 95 per cent of patients within four hours - a target that hasn't been met since July 2015.

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. Many children struggle to sit still on the best of days, and the waiting room can be an overwhelming place where they’re surrounded by strangers, noise and movement.

Here are some ways to make the wait a little less painful!

Don’t forget the necessaries!

Before heading out for a GP or hospital appointment, 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
  • Water and a snack

A top tip is to take a teddy to the appointment and ask the doctor or nurse to give it a little checkup too.

Talk to your child beforehand

If they are old enough to understand, prepare your child before heading to an appointment by talking about 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 look down their throat. Use your judgement to decide how much detail to share, based on your child’s level of understanding and anxiety. 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. A top tip is to take a teddy to the appointment 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 if children feel like they know what’s going to happen.

Familiarise children with the space

Once you’ve arrived and checked in at reception, if at all possible take your child for a short tour around the waiting room. Let them explore the space and try to answer any questions they have. Show them where they will be going when their name is called. Having some familiarity with the waiting room makes it much less of a scary place to be.


Most waiting rooms are equipped with children’s toys, but it’s a good idea to bring a few of your own as well. Bring books to read with your child or easy activities that don’t require much space or equipment, like colouring-in. Allowing your child 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 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 stimulation. In that case, sensory or fidget toys or headphones to listen to music can help keep them calm.

Look after yourself too

Most parents find the idea of spending time waiting in GP or hospital waiting rooms with kids pretty stressful! Fear and anxiety can easily pass to your child, so it’s important to do your best to 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 careful planning, some things will not go according to plan. Children may decide that they don’t want to read their book or play with their toy. There may be an emergency which means a longer wait than expected. Being prepared can help to keep the wait as relaxed and stress-free as possible.



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