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  • Newborns, infants and toddlers

    Last reviewed December 2012


    Helping newborns, infants and toddlers adjust

    Children’s understanding of illness and the implications of bad news
 varies depending on their age and family experiences. The information below gives an overview of the needs of newborns, infants and toddlers, which can be helpful when working out what to say to them and how you might respond to lessen the impact of the news on them. Professional help may benefit a child who does not seem to be coping. 

    Understanding of disease Possible reactions Suggested approaches
    • Little awareness of illness

    • Aware of feelings that parents show, including anxiety.

    • Aware of periods of separation from parents.

    • Can get upset when the physical presence of a loving parent is missing.

    • Toddlers may react to physical changes in their parent or relative or the presence of side effects (e.g. vomiting).
    • Newborns and infants: unsettled, especially if weaned suddenly.

    • Newborns and infants: may want to breastfeed more frequently for emotional comfort.

    • Fussy and cranky.

    • Clingy.

    • Change in sleeping or eating habits.

    • Colic.

    • Toddlers: tantrums, more negativity (saying ‘no’).

    • Return to, or more frequent, thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, baby talk, etc. 
    • Maintain routines. Ask any caregivers to follow your
baby’s or toddler’s established schedules as much as possible. Tell them their teachers (and other trusted adults) are aware of their parent’s wishes.

    • Give plenty of physical contact (e.g. hugging, holding, extra breastfeeds) to help them feel secure.

    • Ask family members and friends to help with household tasks and care.

    • Observe play for clues to their adjustment.

    • Use relaxation tapes, music or baby massage.

    • Express your feelings and fears with others.

    What words should I use?

    It’s often hard to find the right words to start or continue a conversation. These ideas may help you work out what you want to say. Although grouped by age, you may find that suggestions in a younger or older age bracket are more suitable. See here for tips on how to answer specific questions.

    Newborns, infants and toddlers

    Obviously babies don’t need explanations, but the older toddlers get, the more they understand basic ideas about themselves and their family.

    About cancer
    “Mummy is sick and needs to go to hospital to get better.”

    To explain changes and reassure them
    “Mummy has to stay in bed a lot and isn’t able to play, but she still loves you.”

    “Daddy and Mummy need to go away for a couple of nights, so Grandma is going to come and stay at home with you.”

    Younger children, three to five years

    Preschool children can understand very basic explanations about many things, including illness, family routines and cause and effects.

    About cancer
    “I have an illness called cancer. The doctor is giving me medicine to help me get better. The medicine might make me feel sick or tired some days, but I might feel fine on other days.”

    To address misunderstandings
    “Sometimes girls and boys worry that they thought or did something to cause cancer. No-one can make people get cancer, and we can’t wish it away either.”

    “How do you think Daddy got cancer?”

    To explain changes and reassure them
    “Mummy needs to go to the hospital every day for a few weeks, so Daddy will be taking you to preschool/school instead. He’s looking forward to doing that.”

    “Pop is sick so we won’t see him for a while, but he loves you very much.”

    “I love your pictures, so maybe you can draw me some to take to hospital.”

    What newborns, infants and toddlers understand about death

    In preparing children for the loss of a parent or other loved one, it can help if you understand how death is perceived at different ages.

    Understanding of death Possible reactions Suggested approached

    • Babies don't have any knowledge of death.

    • Can sense when routine is unsettled.

    • Confuse death with sleep and don't understand its permanence.

    • May worry persistently about the well parent.

    • They may think that they or their behaviour caused the cancer to become advanced.

    • Angry with the parent for not being able to give them more attention.

    • Avoid explaining death to young children as sleeping because it can cause distress about sleep. Children may have frightening dreams and ask lots of questions about death.


    Support services, resources and information

    The information below includes a list of reliable internet sites, books, library resources and organisations where you can learn more about cancer-related issues.

    Organisations that can help Contact details Information
    Cancer Council 13 11 20 Cancer Council offers a range of information and services to help people with cancer, their families and friends, including telephone support groups, Cancer Connect and the online forum www.cancerconnections.com.au.
    CanTeen 1800 226 833
    The national support organisation for young people aged 12 to 24 living with cancer, children of people with cancer and siblings of people with cancer.
    Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 www.kidshelp.com.au Kids Helpline is a telephone, web and email counselling service with a fun, interactive website for kids, teens and young adults. It offers confidential counselling for anything worrying a child.
    Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au A general telephone counselling service.
    youthbeyondblue 1300 22 4636 www.youthbeyondblue.com Supports young people dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. They provide tips on how to talk about depression and get help.
    Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement
 1300 664 786 
www.grief.org.au This organisation provides information and support for people caring for children and adolescents who have been impacted by trauma and loss.
    Young Carers (Carers Australia)  1800 242 636 www.youngcarers.net.au This organisation supports young people who are caring for
a parent who is physically or mentally ill. They run support programs and provide information.


    Website for children, age three to 12 years Contact details Information
    Bearing Up Club www.bereavementcare.com.au An internet club for kids dealing with bereavement. Once a child is registered, they can join an online chat room. The developers of this site, Mal and Valerie McKissock, are well-known bereavement therapists who have written grief books for children and adults dealing with grief.

     www.cancer.org and www.macmillan.org.uk are two international websites with a lot of useful cancer information.

    Picture books

    My Mum’s Got Cancer by Dr Lucy Blunt, Jane Curry Publishing, 2013
    Safina and the Hat Tree by Cynthia Hartman, Nomota Pty Ltd, 2004
    Sammy’s Mommy Has Cancer by Sherry Kohlenberg, Magination Press, 1993
    My Mum Has Breast Cancer: a family’s cancer journey by Lisa Sewards, Harrison Sewards, Self-published, 2007
    My Name Is Buddy: a story for children about brain tumours visit http://buddybook.landofpuregold.com/readbook.htm


    Information reviewed by: A/Prof Jane Turner, Department of Psychiatry, The University of Queensland; Frankie Durack, Counsellor and Play Therapist, WA; Carol Hargreaves, Cancer Council Helpline Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Dr Carrie Lethborg, Clinical Leader, Cancer Social Work, Coordinator, Psychosocial Cancer Care, St Vincent’s Hospital, VIC; Angelita Martini, Consumer and Karin Steinhoff, Consumer.



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