Preparing your child for surgery

At Cedars-Sinai, we know that surgery can be an overwhelming, often frightening experience for children and families. Talking with your child about what to expect ahead of time may help your child feel less afraid. Some things to do beforehand:

  • Listen to your child.
  • Be honest about what will happen.
  • Use short, simple terms to explain things.
  • Encourage questions and expression of fears.
  • Let your child know that having to go to the hospital does not mean he has done something wrong.
  • Explain that he will have special medicine to help his body not be awake during surgery and that he will wake up when the procedure is over.
  • Reassure him that if something hurts, there are ways to help the pain, including medicine, relaxation and distraction.
  • Emphasize that the hospital stay is temporary and focus on what your child will be able to do when they go home.

Children understand things based on their developmental level and age. The younger the child, the closer to the event you should prepare them.  Here are some ideas that may be helpful to you.

  • For any age child, pack some special items from home. Familiar objects will help your child feel more comfortable in a strange place. A favorite toy can serve as a security blanket and can accompany your child into surgery, the recovery room or the intensive care unit. For older children, a favorite pillow or blanket may also offer comfort.
  • Infants and toddlers: Infants and toddlers find the most comfort in familiarity with caregivers. A calm caregiver helps promote a calm child. If you need to be away for periods of time during your child’s hospitalization, plan for a family member or friend to be with your child.
  • Preschool and young school age (2-6 year olds): As a child gets older, he can be told about going to the hospital and what to expect once there. It is very important to give clear and simple explanations…and to tell the truth. Encourage conversation about the upcoming surgery. To know what your child’s fears are will be helpful for you, as well as the hospital staff.  Rather than ask, “How do you feel?” try saying something like, “I bet you’re wondering what will happen when we get to the hospital, aren’t you?” This approach is more likely to get your child to talk.

    Children can engage in medical play by giving a doll or stuffed animal “shots” and “medicine.” A play medical kit can be a wonderful tool for this type of play and might make your child more comfortable expressing feelings. Offer reassurance that you’ll do your best to be with him when you can and that other people will take care of him when you aren't there.
  • School age children (6-12 year olds): Depending on your individual child’s abilities and needs, many of our suggestions for younger children can also be helpful at this age group. Please keep in mind that older children may want more detail so they may ask more questions. It is okay to tell your child if you don’t know the answer and that there are people at the hospital you can talk to for the answer and then follow through. This keeps the bond of trust secure.

    It’s important for children to know that following surgery, the doctors, nurses and other members of our healthcare team may do additional tests and/or procedures to make sure that he is healing well from surgery. Empower your child to speak for himself, particularly around the issue of pain. There is a pain assessment tool that is useful to children to rate their pain. There are medications to help manage pain but encourage such things as distraction, relaxation and deep breathing to augment pain medications. These techniques also offer children a bit more control over their situation.
  • Teenagers: Speak to your teenager honestly and respectfully about his upcoming surgery. Encourage your teenager to talk to the doctors and nurses and remember to include your teenager in discussions and decisions. This enables your teenager to feel a bit of control and foster independence. Your nonverbal cues are as important as your words: your facial expressions, tone and body language can be powerful. If you appear anxious or scared, your teen might feel frightened, regardless of the words you choose.

    Privacy is a big issue for teenagers. Reassure your teen that the hospital staff will be respectful by knocking and pausing before entering the room. Encourage your teenager to maintain contact with friends and family through phone calls, Skype, letters and cards.  When appropriate, allow for visits from friends for peer support.