Parents who help to care for their children in hospital can find themselves tired, hungry and unwashed.
Are the parents of children in hospital given a fair deal? My three-year-old daughter, Claire, was admitted recently with a severe chest infection, and of course I was allowed to stay with her. I slept on a fold-up bed next to hers: I was allowed to wash her, dress her, take her to the loo, and while away the long hours with drawings, stories and games.

It was no hardship. I passionately wanted to care for my small girl. What became difficult was caring for myself. The parents' washroom was filthy. There was ash on the floor, and a layer of grime over the basin. The shower cubicle was unspeakable. I took to using the children's loos whenever my daughter needed to do a wee. They might have been tiny, but at least they were clean.

I got very thirsty. Drinks weren't provided on the ward, although there was a kettle and some tea bags, if you could get hold of some milk (it was a Sunday evening). I went out for a moment to scavenge some. When I came back, I found my daughter weeping. She'd had an accident and she was sopping wet. There had been nobody to take her to the loo.

I was also ravenously hungry. We had been in casualty most of the day, and hadn't eaten. My daughter was offered a turkey burger and chips, rice pudding, and a milky drink with toast. For me, though, there was no relief until my partner came in with a packed supper of chocolate and sandwiches. The next morning a nurse took pity on me. Surreptitiously, she put two slices of toast on my daughter's plate. "One's for you," she whispered. Feeling as though I was somehow fiddling the health service, I ate it.

At almost every bed on the ward, a devoted parent or grandparent hovered. Among the long-stay patients, the strain was beginning to show. Mothers had unwashed hair, and pale, tired faces. Fathers tried vainly to control the exuberance of visiting siblings. Thankfully, we were only in for 36 hours.

Sarah Lindsey, Communications Officer of the National Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospital (NAWCH), agrees that facilities for parents are not all they should be.

"We've had a lot of complaints about this kind of thing. We had one recently from a mother who was breastfeeding her eight-month-old baby. She was expected to sleep in a hostel over the road, which obviously wasn't practical."

The association suggests that parents of children in hospital should have sleeping arrangements within easy reach of their child's bed, adequate toilets and washrooms, access to a phone and facilities to eat on the ward. "Sick children regress and do not want to be left for long periods of time."

Parents are saving the health service money by providing the one-to-one attention that children need, and freeing up nurses for other duties. Because children are now discharged from hospital much earlier, parents are also much more involved in their convalescence, often having to arrange prolonged care at home.

Hospitals are more humane now than they were 40 years ago, when parents were routinely told to stay away from their sick children because "it only unsettles them". But while most parents welcome the opportunity to nurse their children, Sarah Lindsey is concerned that they should receive the right support both in hospital and afterwards. "Parents can play a decisive role in a child's recovery. Facilities for them should be better."

National Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospital, telephone: 0171-833 2041.