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Newborns, infants and toddlers

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 cancer news on them. Professional help may also benefit a child who does not seem to be coping.

Understanding of cancer and possible reactions:

  • 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.

Suggested approaches:

  • 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 should I say to a toddler about cancer?

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.”

What do newborns, infants and toddlers understand about death?

Babies don’t have any real knowledge of death. They can sense when a routine is unsettled. Babies may confuse death with sleep and don’t understand its permanence.

Possible reactions:

  • Infant or toddler 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.

Suggested approach

  • 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.


This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed December 2018 by the following expert content reviewers: Professor Kate White, Chair of Nursing, The University of Sydney, NSW; Sarah Ellis, Psychologist, Behavioural Sciences Unit, Kids with Cancer Foundation, Sydney Children’s Hospital, NSW; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Chandra Franken, Program Manager – NSW & ACT, Starlight Children’s Foundation, NSW; John Friedsam, General Manager of Divisions, CanTeen, NSW; Keely Gordon-King, Cancer Counselling Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Stephanie Konings, Research Officer, CanTeen, NSW; Sally and Rosie Morgan, Consumers; Dr Pandora Patterson, General Manager, Research and Youth Cancer Services, Canteen, and Adjunct Associate Professor, Cancer Nursing Research Unit, The University of Sydney, NSW and Visiting Professor, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Coventry University, UK; Suzanne Rumi, Consumer; Michael Sieders, Primary School Program Manager, Camp Quality.

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