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Better than ever: 5 things becoming a parent taught me about pediatric design

December 14, 2022

By Elisa Costa

I thought motherhood would hurt my career. It’s been completely the opposite, as I’ve been able to channel my experience into good healthcare design.

I’ll never forget the day I learned I was pregnant with my first child. After an initial burst of happiness, my mind shifted to how this news would impact my career. I worried about the time I’d spend away from my job—caring for my baby and not advancing my career or my knowledge.

Now that I’m a mother of two and continuing to grow in my career, it’s interesting to look back at that time. It turns out that becoming a parent has benefitted my career. It’s given me a whole different perspective into pediatric healthcare design. I’ve learned so much about what good design can do for a family’s experience as they navigate through healthcare buildings.  

Before I became a mom, it was hard for me to fully appreciate the fact that pediatric patients—from newborns to young adults—are among our most vulnerable healthcare populations. They have such varied needs. From acute care to complex critical care, to the growing demand for behavioral and mental health services, the needs of pediatric patients are very different than adults when it comes to healthcare facilities. 

Author Elisa Costa says that all the valuable time spent with her children—while on parental leave or in her personal time—has helped her career tremendously.

Here are five ways that I’ve channeled my experience of parenthood into pediatric design.

1. Creating community connection

Becoming a parent is like starting a new job—an extremely difficult job where your client keeps changing their demands and needs every few weeks. There’s a lot to learn, and it can feel overwhelming, especially if your child has medical needs.

It’s possible to discover helpful resources online. But what really helped me was finding a community of other parents that were going through similar situations with their little ones. When doctors diagnosed my son with multiple anaphylactic allergies, I learned invaluable lessons about how to care for him from other parents in similar circumstances.

I’ve conveyed that experience into my designs by spatially creating opportunities for connections to happen organically within a healthcare building. Those connections can be so beneficial for parents’ mental health and education. It’s important to provide a variety of waiting spaces for people. Some of these spaces can foster private reflection, where families can process either good or bad news. Other waiting spaces can encourage parents and children to interact with other families, where they can learn from each other and provide mutual support. Small details, such as carefully selected graphics or wall art, can provide inspiration and help start conversations. Good design can lead to essential community connections. 

Small details in waiting spaces, such as this LEGO sculpture, can provide inspiration and help start conversations. It can encourage young patients and their parents to interact with other families and establish support networks.

2. Establishing clear wayfinding 

It’s one of the most stressful experiences as a new parent: that first emergency room visit with your child. Perhaps your child got into an accident. Or maybe they’re experiencing an anaphylactic allergic reaction or an extremely high fever. You just want to reach that emergency department as quickly as possible. Oh, I’ve been there.

Proper wayfinding and signage can make this experience less stressful for a parent—and it’ll help them get where they need to go as quickly as possible. For parents with children with complex medical needs, the type of situation described above can happen monthly or even weekly.

You can ensure simple wayfinding throughout a medical building by keeping overall public circulation simple, direct, and unobstructed. Families want to navigate through the building with ease and without feeling lost. Simple interior design elements, such as delineations on the floor and ceiling, can provide additional cues to help families know where to go. For example, flooring patterns can slowly transition into a more solid color as a child and their family reaches their destination. In a modular clinic type setting, linking each waiting area with the clinic registration with a common color or bold graphic instead of a number can help families know where to go. Even small children can participate in finding their destination.

As the number of vertical hospitals in urban settings increases due to site constraints, the importance of using proper signage to clearly define transitions from horizontal circulation to vertical circulation is key.  Imagine getting off an elevator with an upset child and realizing you might not be in the right place. It’s anxiety inducing.

Sometimes it’s a long journey from one space to the next within a medical building. So, it’s smart to provide opportunities down long corridors for kids to pause and interact with murals or artwork installed at varying heights. It can keep kids moving, while reassuring parents that they’re going the right way toward another public location—and not into staff or support spaces.

All this valuable time spent with my children—while on parental leave or in my personal time—has helped my career tremendously.

3. Being mindful of accessibility and inclusion 

Early in my career, I learned about designing to meet accessibility codes. But once I started navigating sidewalks, shopping malls, parks, and healthcare facilities with a massive stroller—and eventually with a toddler—I truly understood the importance of ensuring accessibility throughout public areas. If we accomplish this as designers, we’re also fostering a sense of inclusion for all parents and children. It’s essential to design all hallways and doorways to allow wheelchair and stroller access throughout healthcare facilities.

Becoming a mom also made me realize that key locations like check-in/reception desks, waiting areas, and exam rooms must be large enough to potentially accommodate two parents, plus a stroller or a child in a wheelchair.

As designers, we need to carefully consider how people can navigate minor elevation changes. We do this by making ramps easily visible or even making the ramp the only option and using it as a design feature.

Bariatric accommodations can also sometimes get overlooked throughout healthcare facilities. Bariatric wheelchairs don’t typically fit easily through a standard 40-inch accessible door, so sometimes the solution is as simple as making all doors throughout a clinic 42 inches wide. That way, you’re not singling out this very vulnerable patient population type.

It’s also important to provide space to accommodate neurodiverse needs, especially for the pediatric population. Some children interact better with spaces that use neutral tones rather than jarring colors. Children on the autism spectrum can easily become agitated when faced with bright colors, certain fluorescent lighting, loud noises, and unrecognizable abstract forms. 

It’s essential to design all hallways and doorways to allow wheelchair and stroller access throughout healthcare facilities.

4. Making pediatric hospitals patient- and family-centered

When a child feels unwell, either with an acute or chronic issue, they always need their parents or a family member with them—in exam rooms, procedure/treatment rooms, and inpatient bedrooms. As children become young adults, this need doesn’t change very much. The presence of family improves patient comfort and outcomes. So, pediatric hospitals should be patient-centered and family-centered.

It’s wise to provide spaces for families to conduct everyday life activities like playing, social interaction, cooking, and eating. Spaces like these may help them cope with a complex disease, foster communication within families, and encourage activity and a sense of health. These spaces should be calming with appropriate sensory experiences to help relieve young patients’ anxiety. Designers can hide medical details. Ample natural light should flow into the public spaces, exam rooms, and treatment areas.

I’ve also learned that it’s vital to give people choice and control when it comes to privacy. This means providing spaces that allow for informal social connection when patients want it, with the option of private spaces when they don’t.

An interior small terrace at Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre in Hamilton, Ontario. Providing spaces in healthcare facilities where families and young patients can interact with nature is crucial for their mental health.

5. Fostering a connection with nature

Nature can work wonders. It never ceases to amaze me when my children pick up sticks and rocks and imagine cooking utensils and food or a magic wand that makes unicorns appear. It’s fascinating how a walk in a park can lift spirits when everyone in our family is feeling a little out of sorts.

Before becoming a parent, I knew about the importance of this connection to nature. But I didn’t truly understand how interacting with nature can help children learn, inspire creativity, and serve as a distraction if needed.

Providing spaces in healthcare facilities where families and young patients can interact with nature is crucial for their mental health. Think of a central garden, a terrace, and seating with view to natural landscape. Though it can be challenging to create these natural spaces within hospitals—especially in inpatient units compliant with Infection Prevention and Control (IPAC) protocols—establishing regular meetings and communication with a hospital’s IPAC team throughout even the early stages of design can help mitigate problems down the line.

For some people—including critically ill children or family members hesitant to leave a patient’s side—you may need to bring the outside in. Designers can use art and views to the outside through large windows to create a strong sense of place, so children and their families can still get to know their local parks, gardens, beaches, and nearby natural landmarks. Interior designs with a focus on nature, through color choices and art or graphics on the walls, helps to refocus the child’s attention from the possible fear of a sterile healthcare space.

It’s made me better than ever

All this valuable time spent with my children—while on parental leave or in my personal time—has helped my career tremendously. I'm a better pediatric designer because of it. I’ve learned so much since becoming a mother, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to apply that knowledge in my career. 

  • Elisa Costa

    Specializing in healthcare design, Elisa is an architect with over 10 years of experience. She works with our team in Toronto and is known for her expertise in the conceptualization, planning, and design stages of projects.

    Contact Elisa
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