When Your Child Needs Surgery: 7 Essential Tips for Parents

Knowledge and preparation help to ease their anxiety (and yours)

Parents are likely to be more anxious about a child’s surgery than their own. Knowledge and preparation are the keys to relieving anxiety all around.

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Here are tips for making your child’s (and family’s) experience the best it can be:

1. Take care of yourself first.

Your child’s upcoming surgery is naturally stressful for parents. Children can pick up on a parent’s anxiety and become anxious, too. This limits their ability to cope.

Don’t be afraid to ask the healthcare team any questions you may have about your child’s surgery, anesthesia or recovery. “Having enough information can help to reassure you,” says Child Life Manager Shannon Sonnhalter, CCLS.

2. Talk things out in a calm, quiet place.

Tell your child in simple words that he or she will be coming to the hospital. Explain why they need this procedure and when it will happen.

Encourage your child to ask questions and share feelings. This can help you to correct misconceptions. For example, some children view surgery as a punishment. Others worry they may die in the hospital if that happened to a grandparent.

Teens can imagine scenarios they’ve seen on TV or in movies, like waking up in the middle of a procedure. “We tell them that’s drama, and real hospitals aren’t run like that,” says Ms. Sonnhalter.

Honesty will preserve your child’s trust in you and the healthcare team. If you need help explaining things, a hospital’s child life specialists can assist you.

3. Choose your words thoughtfully.

When explaining anesthesia or surgery to a child, be mindful of the language you use. Kids tend to interpret things literally, based on limited life experience.

“For example, we avoid saying, ‘we’ll put you to sleep,’ because many children have had a dog or other pet who was ‘put to sleep’ and never came home,” says Ms. Sonnhalter.

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Some words are scarier than others. You can get the same message across with softer language. For example, substitute “make an opening” or “remove” for the more frightening word “cut.”

4. Schedule a preoperative tour.

Children do better with surgery and anesthesia when they are well-prepared. Check to see if your hospital’s child life specialists offer a preoperative tour for families.

This will allow you and your child to meet the staff and have any questions answered. You and your child can see things firsthand and become familiar with certain medical equipment.

“We explain to children what they’ll see, hear, taste and smell,” says Ms. Sonnhalter. “We show them an anesthesia mask and explain how it will help them breathe special air to help them go to sleep.”

If your child will be getting a cast, extra intravenous (IV) lines or tubes, or will need to stay in the intensive care unit, child life specialists and nurses can help prepare them for that, as well.

5. Let kids be kids.

Hugs, laughter — and, especially, play — are as important as medicine for children facing surgery. “Play normalizes their life; it’s what kids do,” says Ms. Sonnhalter.

On a preoperative tour, child life workers use dolls or stuffed animals for medical play, showing kids where on the doll’s body a procedure will occur.

They’ll allow your child to practice giving you, a nurse, or the doll a shot. Your child may get a surgical cap and mask to play with using their toy medical kit at home.

“This helps gives kids a sense of control when, in the hospital, that control is often taken away,” says Ms. Sonnhalter.

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6. Bring the comforts of home.

Encourage your child to help “pack” for the hospital. Let him or her choose favorite dolls, stuffed animals, books, music, games or toys to bring. Familiar things often make kids feel more comfortable.

Even babies can be reassured by the presence of familiar blankets, pacifiers, bottles and nipples. “Some parents leave a blanket or T-shirt that smells like them in the hospital bed,” says Ms. Sonnhalter.

Older kids love to bring their smartphone, tablet, books and even stuffed animals. “We do everything to make the family comfortable, knowing they’re never going to be entirely comfortable until their child is back in their arms,” she says.

7. Minimize separation anxiety.

Separation from parents is often one of the greatest fears kids have about going to the hospital. Reassure your child that you’ll be with him or her as much as possible.

Ask if you can stay in the operating room until your child falls asleep. Some children’s hospitals permit this, based on the procedure, your child’s medical history and his or her age.

Your anesthesiologist may give a medication to calm your child prior to surgery. If you’re present for that and are there in recovery when your child wakes up, it will seem like you’ve never left.

“It’s important to handle separation well, particularly for the younger child,” says pediatric anesthesiologist Julie Niezgoda, MD. If not, kids can regress from milestones they’ve achieved, like starting to wet the bed after being potty-trained.

If your child should wake up crying, hungry, thirsty, confused or upset — which often happens after surgery — rest assured that your child’s experienced caregivers will know how to help them feel better.


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