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, as your child will need to stop eating and drinking several hours before their surgery. Your child's doctor or anesthesiologist will tell you what is the latest time your child can have food or drink prior to their procedure.

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 event with positive language.

It's important not to lie to your child, though. If something is going to hurt, do not promise your child that it won't. They'll know you are lying as soon as they experience the pain, and this leads to mistrust. It is better to be honest and reassure the child by saying something like "it will feel like a pinch, but I'll be with you the entire time."

Prior to the procedure, walk your child through the steps they will 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 they need tickle medicine). Pretend to weigh them, take their temperature (with a real or pretend ear thermometer), and take their 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 them.
  • "Here's the medicine!" In some cases, a child who is going to be put under general anesthesia receives a liquid medicine first to relax them. 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 they are 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. For example, most kids will be given a mask over their mouth and nose to administer anesthesia. Many pediatric anesthesiologists will let the child choose a flavor of lip balm to rub on the inside of the mask so they can smell it as they go to sleep.
  • "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).

Since children learn through play, it's also helpful to invite your child to play the doctor and have a stuffed animal, doll, or action figure be the patient. This allows the child to play out what is going to happen in a way that also gives them control.

Do not tell your child that they need to be "brave," or that they should not cry. Children should be encouraged to feel their feelings and not suppress them. It is normal for kids to be fearful about surgery. Allow your child to feel comfortable discussing their fears with you so you can make a plan for ways to try to reduce fears.

You can also try reading stories with your child about going to the hospital, such as Megan's Story from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, or these kids' books:

  • 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. Also find out if the hospital has child life specialists. If they do, reach out to them as they can be the best resource to help you prepare your child for surgery, both ahead of time and on the day of the procedure.

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