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If you are a therapist, doctor, or someone in the healthcare or human services industry, you have probably put a lot of thought into your office. My personal experience, though, is that often the office (where the client or patient is engaged) is adequate but the entire facility (especially the waiting area) has much to be desired. I believe that the families and siblings of special needs kids are often overlooked, and no where has this been more apparent to me than while trying to keep a fussy baby or toddler occupied while his big brother is in therapy.
This guide hopes to offer you (the therapist or provider) the perspective of those left out in the waiting area. While you are doing HARD work in providing the therapy or care for their child, they are also doing hard work:
The parent has gathered the child and all of their belongings, along with everything their sibling(s) need for the outing. They have, perhaps, traveled a distance. They are worried about how their child will do in therapy, how they will keep the siblings engaged, how much money everything is costing, and what they are going to cook for dinner when they arrive home – tired and exhausted. Among other things (like taking lots of selfies out of boredom).
Having a space that meets the needs of the entire family is paramount. I know that therapy office space differs, as does the financial capability of the provider to provide these things. This is just to get you thinking.
The biggest thing I want you to take away from this post is the idea that the needs of the entire family are important – in reality, the FAMILY is your client or patient. No one office is probably going to be able to provide EVERYTHING on this list. But you can take baby steps to make YOUR space more family-friendly.
General Tips for Creating a Family-Friendly Office Environment:
WiFi. People in waiting rooms rely heavily on their devices. We can decry the societal woes that have made this the case another time. But tired special needs families need their devices and their WiFi. Period.
Make the WiFi fast enough to stream Netflix and make the password accessible. Consider using a sign like this:
Charging Stations. Devices (especially those being used by moms and toddlers in waiting rooms!) die quickly. Consider replacing the outlets in your office waiting areas with outlets with USB ports. Invest in some Amazon Basics charging cords and create a charging station for your clients.
Bathrooms. Consider making it so that the bathroom is accessible for all to use, without asking for a key or having to be buzzed back to a less accessible location.
- Having soap from somewhere like Bath & Body Works or even Target’s Method brand can be one of many “extra touches” that makes your clients and their families feel valued.
- Add a stool and perhaps a toddler potty seat for little ones who may be potty training. Potty training waits for no one. Consider replacing your toilet seat with a space-saver seat that has a toddler seat already installed, for an inconspicuous addition that is easy to keep clean along with the regular toilet.
- We will discuss the needs of babies further in a moment, but please consider having a trashcan WITH A LID and having diaper trash bags available so that moms have a place for dirty diapers without worrying about stinking up the bathroom for everyone to follow.
- Air freshener or Poo Pourri – sometimes, you just gotta go!
- Extras: fresh flowers and a candy dish of mints or chocolates never hurts either.
Water, Coffee, Snacks & Drinks. Theoretically, smart mamas have all these things with them because they have planned ahead and not run out of the house in a rush without forgetting Goldfish and juiceboxes. But in the real world where special needs mamas live, it’s not that simple. I can’t tell you how many times I forgot my water bottle, ran out of the house without snacks for the baby, or found myself yawning in the waiting room desperate for a cup of coffee.
- Have a mini-fridge stocked with bottled water, soda, and juice boxes for the littles
- Have a basket of healthy, kid-friendly snacks like individually wrapped bags of Goldfish, Teddy Grahams, or fruit snacks. Include some granola bars for the parents.
- Consider a basic Keurig or similar system, with an assortment of flavored coffees (make sure to include some decaf!)
TV. This one is controversial – I’m not even sure how I feel about it. I’ve been in plenty of waiting rooms where the TV was on a Spongebob Marathon or some soap opera and was completely OBNOXIOUS. In those instances, my goal was to distract my kids away from the TV.
If you DO have a TV on, keep the volume loud enough to hear but low enough to not be overwhelming. Nick Jr. or PBS are probably the best and safest choices for little eyes and ears and include a lot of educational programming. Netflix and Amazon Prime also have a lot of great shows, if you want to set up a system that functions with apps rather than a TV service (like Roku or a smart TV).
Let’s Talk About Those Babies!!!
Especially if you are dealing with pediatric clients or patients, the chances of them having infant siblings is pretty high. Please read further for the must-haves that mamas need!
A Changing Area. Whether it’s in your restrooms (see above) or in a separate area, PLEASE have a place for parents to change diapers!!!
- Changing table
- Wipes – Amazon Basics are fabulous and it’s easy to set up Subscribe and Save
- Disposable changing table liners
- Diaper trash bags
- Disinfectant wipes to wipe up any messes and clean between clients
A Baby-Only Area. This is an investment, but moms will THANK YOU!
I really struggled with how to keep my baby safe and happy, especially when he started crawling. Occupational therapy was a struggle because there were a lot of older sensory-seeking kids around who wanted to touch, poke, prod, and be rowdy. I get it. My older child was one of those kids, which is why we were there in the first place! But…I got really frustrated with it (as did my baby), especially when other parents didn’t try at all to instruct their kids to not touch my baby. I ended up spending a lot of therapy sessions in my minivan!
Consider setting up an area that clearly says “Babies Only!”
- A cheap option is a pop-up playpen or ball pit (minus the balls, thank you very much!)
- If you have a bit more to spend, a play-yard is a great investment!
We used this for YEARS in our house, and it was affectionately known as “Baby Jail.”
- If you have even more to spend (and you have a lot of office space), there are some fabulous playpen options out there as well!
A Nursing & Pumping Area. Not every mama is comfortable nursing in public (I know I wasn’t!), so having a designated area for moms to nurse or pump for their babies is really a great idea!
Toddlers & Preschoolers:
- Kid-friendly seating or tables. There are so many great options out there, but something like this would be wonderful. Provide some washable markers or crayons and coloring books (hit up Dollar Tree!) and make a place for kids to kill some time.
- Toys, blocks, and puzzles. It doesn’t have to be huge or elaborate – just something to keep the littles occupied:
- A bead maze or activity cube is always a crowd favorite (even with the young elementary-age kiddos!)
- A wall activity panel is a fabulous idea if you are short on office waiting room space!!
I write this from the place of a been-there-done-that mom. Little Brother (who was born when Ezra was 5) has been tagging along to therapy appointments since he was about two weeks old. One of the biggest factors in us switching occupational therapy practices (and then quitting OT altogether) was that between the hour drive to the clinic and trying to keep Little Brother occupied during that hour, I was so stressed out that I didn’t feel it was worth the benefit that we were gaining from having Ezra getting therapy from that practice (although the practice itself was AMAZING and I was definitely torn about leaving).
I just hope that this post will mean there are less moms having tailgate parties with toddlers while their older children are in therapy!