How to Prepare a Child for Surgery

toddler in hospital bed covering her mouth

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Preparing children for surgery—as parents, it's something we hope we never have to do. Naturally, we all want to protect our children from pain and discomfort. Unfortunately, sometimes surgery is necessary to treat a serious illness or medical condition, and that in itself can be painful and uncomfortable.

The best way to lessen the discomfort and fear (for both you and your child) is to educate yourself on what will happen and to be ready to manage any physical and emotional trauma that your little one may go through.

Preparing Yourself for Your Child's Surgery

Preparing children for surgery begins by preparing yourself. Here are some of the basic things you should know before taking your child into the operating room.

  • Why is the operation necessary?
  • Can it be delayed until your child is older?
  • How long will the procedure take?
  • How long will my child be in the hospital after the procedure?
  • How will my child look after surgery (scars, any swelling or permanent physical changes)?
  • How will pain be controlled (local or general anesthesia, painkillers after ​the procedure)?
  • What type of care will my child require at home and for how long?

In addition, be sure you have all of the financial and insurance details you need. Check your healthcare benefits to see if you need a pre-authorization for the procedure, and to confirm whether you'll need to pay a copay or meet a deductible.

The doctor will likely have you call or check-in with the hospital a few days before the surgery. At that time, be sure you get the exact time you need to arrive and, if necessary, directions to the hospital. This is also when you can verify feeding and drinking guidelines, which include:

  • Not eating eight to 12 hours before surgery
  • Stopping commercial formula six hours before surgery
  • Giving a final drink of breast milk four hours before surgery
  • Allowing clear fluids (water, apple juice, Pedialyte or electrolyte replacement drink) up until two hours before you arrive at the hospital

Beyond taking care of all the particulars for your child, be sure to take some time for yourself. This can be a very stressful time for parents. Get as much sleep as you can the night before the surgery, and eat right—remember that you need to be strong for your child.

You may have a very long wait while your child is in the operating room, so pack something to help you keep your mind and hands busy. Keep it light and easy: a game on your phone, a movie on your iPad (remember the headphones), magazines you never get a chance to read, knitting, etc.

Finally, being organized can help you avoid unnecessary stress. Set up a folder or binder with all of your child's medical information and your insurance information. Keep a notebook or a blank page in the binder where you can add notes and instructions you receive the day of surgery. This way, you won't have to try and search for the prescription information or call a doctor late in the evening when you need to know how much Tylenol to give your little one.

Tips for Getting Your Kid Ready for Surgery

Children under 3 years old will have a hard time understanding any explanation you try to give about surgery, but you can still talk about it and let your child know that something is going to happen—and do your best to surround the idea of the "event" with positive language.

Prior to the procedure, walk your child through the steps she'll go through the day of surgery:

  • "First we play." Usually, children are brought to a playroom before surgery. So you can pretend you start in the play area.
  • "Here comes the nurse." A nurse will usually come in to ask questions and take some vitals. Be silly with the questions (for instance, ask if he needs tickle medicine). Pretend to weigh him, take his temperature (with a real or pretend ear thermometer), and take her blood pressure.
  • "Dr. Elmo is here." Use a favorite stuffed animal to play the doctor. On the day of surgery, you can pull that stuffed animal out of the bag at the same time the doctor comes in, which might help calm a child who has already come to expect that the doctor is here to poke and prod him.
  • "Here's the yummy medicine!" In some cases, a child who is going to be put under general anesthesia receives a liquid medicine first to relax her. Ask your surgeon if this will be the case for your child; if so, add it to your role play.
  • "Let's put on our hospital clothes." Use one of your own old shirts to pretend you are putting a hospital gown on your child.
  • "Mommy brings you to the bright room." Ask if you will be able to take your child into the operating room. If so, it can comfort your child to know you'll be there until he's asleep. If your child will be taken in by the medical team, ask how they plan to do it so you can try and act it out beforehand with your child.
  • "Don't forget your lovey." Children can often carry a stuffed toy, pillow or blanket into the operating room, and the nurse will return it to you during the surgery. There's a risk that toys can get lost in the fuss, though. If possible, bring a toy you can replace, or one that is a second favorite (and have the best one waiting for your little one after the procedure).

You can also try reading stories with your child about going to the hospital such as:

  • Little Critter: My Trip to the Hospital by Mercer Mayer
  • Chris Gets Ear Tubes by Betty Pace
  • Good-bye Tonsils by Craig Hatkoff
  • Curious George Goes to the Hospital by H. A. Rey and Margret Rey

Several hospital websites also offer free printable coloring books that you can use with your child to explain what will happen the day of the procedure.

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