How should I prepare my child for surgery?

Parents can help prepare their child for surgery by honestly discussing their condition and procedure.

It's important that children know what to expect from medical procedures, including surgery. Parents and the surgeon prepare kids for the hospital and surgery.

You may feel it's best not to tell your child too much about her surgery. However, usually the more both you and your child learn about the procedure or surgery and what to expect, the easier it will be to cope with the experience.

  • Ask about anything you don't understand. You have the right to understand every word caregivers say, whether they are talking about a procedure, surgery, test results or treatments. If it doesn't make sense to you, please ask for an explanation that you can understand.
  • Child life specialists are also available to help your child understand the procedure or surgery and help your child cope.

The anesthesiologist and the surgeon will do their best to make your child's visit to the hospital as pleasant as possible; however, you also have a key role to play in your child's care. It is important that you begin preparing your child for the operation as soon as a decision is made to perform surgery. Children tolerate surgery and anesthesia better when they are well-prepared. As with all of us, children have natural fears of the unknown. Anything you can do to relieve these anxieties and to inform your child about the coming events in the hospital and the operating room will greatly improve your child's experience.

Before you explain to your child what to expect, you also must learn what to expect. It is very important to learn about your child's anesthetic experience beforehand by discussing it with the anesthesiologist in the pre-anesthetic interview.

Once you learn what will happen, you will gain confidence and be better able to talk calmly and honestly to your child. Honesty is a key word. Your child should be told that he or she will be in unfamiliar surroundings but will meet many friendly doctors and nurses. Children need to know that they will have an operation and that there may be some discomfort afterward. Let them know that you may not be with them every minute but will be waiting nearby.

Your composure as a parent is essential. Nothing calms a child more than a confident parent. Although it is natural for parents to have anxiety when their children are having surgery, it is best not to convey this to your child.

Talk to your child about what to expect in the hospital such as corridors, hospital beds and the presence of other children. Reassure your child that everything done during the hospital stay will be explained beforehand.

For infants, it's most important that the parents communicate with each other about their child's surgery. Toddlers are most disturbed by separation. We try to address the fear of separation by having parents come into the operating room until the child is asleep and by bringing them to the recovery room while the child is waking up. Toddlers also are afraid of needles, so we try not to use any until the child is anesthetized. Lastly, they may worry that the surgery is a punishment—so it's important for parents to reassure them.

School-age children may have fears of anesthesia, experiencing pain or death. They may benefit from discussion of the procedure or a pre-op visit to the surgical area and from reassurance. Adolescents need the support of their parents just as much as younger children, but they also need to be empowered. They should participate in discussions with their doctors and be given a voice when decisions are being made.

Preparing your child for surgery and explaining the need for a surgical procedure to your child can be extremely difficult. Understandably, most children become quite fearful about any intervention from a healthcare provider. One way you can help your child is to encourage him or her to trust the healthcare providers he or she will encounter. Children also respond well when they feel like an active participant in decisions about their own body. It can be helpful to encourage children to ask questions and try to explain to them in simple terms what is going to happen.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.