Family Health: Preparing your child for surgery

Few things are more frightening for both parents and kids than when the child needs surgery. In today’s medical centers, doctors and other caregivers understand that children do better when those fears are eased. 

Most pediatric surgery departments now allow parents to be with their child right up until the procedure and in the recovery room directly afterward. For kids who need to stay in the hospital, at least one parent can stay in the room with them. The staff in pediatric surgery departments are dedicated to easing anxieties and giving sick kids and their families the personalized care they need to do well with the surgery experience. 

Parents have a special opportunity in this process. Besides being calm and reassuring during the hospital stay, they can make a big difference by preparing their child beforehand for what to expect.

Start by learning all you can about the surgery your child will have. If you don’t understand anything about the procedure, ask you child’s surgeon to walk you through it. You can also ask how long the surgery will take, what type of anesthesia will be used and what to expect when your child wakes up after the surgery.

Choose a good time

Your child’s age can help determine when and how you talk about the upcoming procedure. These guidelines can help:

  • Toddlers don’t need to know about the surgery until one or two days before it’s scheduled. Tell your child that you’ll be there the whole time and let him or her choose a favorite stuffed animal or toy to bring along.
  • Preschoolers should be told about their surgery three to five days in advance. Make sure your child understands that the surgery isn’t his or her fault. Using a play medical kit can help kids this age work through their feelings about the surgery. They may also benefit from bringing a stuffed animal or other comfort object.
  • School-age kids should be told at least a week or two ahead. Tell them what will happen before and after the surgery and explain the procedure in simple terms. You may have to explain things several times. It’s important to treat these kids normally and encourage them to talk about what they are feeling. Try reading a book together about going to the hospital.
  • Kids under age 12 don’t need to know about the risks involved with surgery. Older kids may want to know more. Your pediatrician or pediatric surgeon can advise you on how much to tell your child.

Use the right words

It’s always best to be calm and speak with confidence when you talk to your child about surgery. The words you use are also important. For example:

  • Younger kids understand “sore” and “hurt” more easily than “pain” or “discomfort.”
  • Instead of “going under anesthesia,” tell your young child that a medicine will help him or her “fall asleep” or “take a nap.” Avoid telling young kids that the doctor will put them to sleep, since they may have heard of pets being put to sleep.
  • Don’t use phrases like “open you up” or “cut you open” with young children. Instead, say the surgeon will fix the problem. Older kids can understand more about the procedure, but try to be reassuring.
  • If you must use medical terms, be sure to explain them. Your surgeon can help you find simpler words and explanations.

Calm their fears

Even adults can be anxious or fearful before surgery, and in kids those fears can become magnified. Your child will look to your for cues on how to feel, so try not to show worry. Be as honest as you can without causing undue stress. For example, explain that the area will be sore after the surgery, but there are things that can make it hurt less.

Depending on your child’s age, some of these strategies can also help:

  • Use a stuffed animal to show what will happen during the procedure. Encourage questions and explain that it’s okay to be afraid.
  • Explain that the doctors and nurses have done the same surgery before and are very good at it.
  • Remind your child that the procedure is meant to fix a health problem that will get better afterward.
  • Reassure your child that he or she won’t wake up or feel pain during the surgery, and that you’ll be close by.

Be a good listener

It’s important to give your child time to ask questions about the upcoming surgery. That may mean answering the same questions many times, but each time is an opportunity to be reassuring. Young children can’t always put their feelings into words, so pay attention to your child’s behavior. Kids can become angry and act out when they are stressed. Try to be patient – you are the best person to ease your child’s fears about surgery.