It’s around this time of year when they start showing up at Riley Hospital — ninjas, wizards, monkeys, princesses and superheroes — all looking for care.

The children’s hospital, part of Indiana University Health, has made a tradition of offering its patients a pile of costumes to slip into every October to forget their worries for the day. But this year, the Indy-based institution decided to “up the ante” and extend the festivities throughout this week, says Paul Haut, M.D., interim president and chief medical officer.

On the docket this week is everything from a coloring contest to “Tutu and Thrilling Hair Tuesday,” where the staff will play dress-up, too, putting on goofy wigs and throwing ballerina skirts over their uniforms. Employees also will hold reverse trick or treating Friday, stopping by each kid’s room to drop off little toys and trinkets. No candy, though, due to allergies and dietary restrictions, and Riley is careful to make sure that the costumes, donated by a philanthropic partner, aren’t too frightening.

IU Health Riley Hospital for Children

Haut says dressing up has been a huge hit thus far. “The absolute joy on these kids’ faces was incredible.” One little boy, being treated for symptoms due to his premature birth five years ago, didn’t want to leave the hospital when it was time for discharge.  

“It’s kind of ironic when you have a sick child who actually wants to be here because we’re doing something that he sees as really fun,” Haut says. “That tells you we’ve successfully done distraction and helped them see how their lives can be normalized, despite the fact that he has these issues going on.”

Riley certainly isn’t alone in its traditions, as pediatric hospitals across the country look to get into the Halloween spirit. Earlier this month, NFL defensive star JJ Watt donned a Batman costume and surprised children during a Halloween party at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. Costume store Spirit has partnered with some 130 hospitals across the country, providing garb for dress-up and helping organizations to raise philanthropic dollars.

Memorial Hospital, in Colorado Springs, Colo., is one of the original participants in the Spirit of Children, taking part since 2006. This year, about 26 kids clad costumes and played games during the Oct. 13 party. Jeri Young, child life specialist, says the effort has worked wonders in easing children’s anxieties. “We see all of our kids go from that moment of ‘I don’t feel well’ to ‘Hey, let’s have some fun today,’” she says.

Haut believes such efforts offer a lesson to hospitals for adults on the importance of how little things, which have nothing to do with medical care, can transform a patient’s experience.

“I think children’s hospitals get that right a lot of the time,” he says. “You’re caring, not just for the medical condition, but the complete patient and family. Sometimes when you get into the adult realm, it’s not always as well-recognized how much these other things are part of healing,”

What’s your hospital doing to celebrate Halloween this week? Be sure to share your traditions in the comment section below, email them to me at, or tweet links and photos to @HHNmag.

We’ll share as many as we can later this week.