When Your Child Needs Surgery: Essential Tips for Parents

Knowledge and preparation help to ease their anxiety (and yours)
child hugging stuffed bear in hospital bed

If your child has to have surgery, it can feel overwhelming. In fact, you might be more anxious about your child’s surgery than your own surgery. Knowledge and preparation are the keys to relieving anxiety all around. 

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Pediatric anesthesiologist Julie Niezgoda, MD, and Child Life Manager Shannon Sonnhalter, CCLS, offer tips for making your child’s (and family’s) experience the best it can be.

Take care of yourself first

Your child’s upcoming surgery is naturally stressful for you. But your child can pick up on your anxiety and become anxious, too. This limits their ability to cope. So it’s important to do the best you can to take care of yourself first. Obviously, get plenty of rest in the days leading up to surgery and eat adequately. 

But one thing you can do to help alleviate anxiety is be prepared. Don’t be afraid to ask your child’s healthcare team any questions you may have about your child’s surgery, anesthesia or recovery. “Having enough information can help to reassure you,” says Sonnhalter.

Talk things out in a calm, quiet place

Tell your child in simple words that they 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 Sonnhalter.

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

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 Sonnhalter.

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.”

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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.

But if you’re able to take a preoperative tour, this will allow you and your child to meet the staff and have any questions answered. Here, you and your youngster can see things firsthand and become familiar with certain medical equipment.

“We explain to children what they’ll see, hear, taste and smell,” says 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 get 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.

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 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 Sonnhalter.

Bring the comforts of home

Let them 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.

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“Some parents leave a blanket or T-shirt that smells like them in the hospital bed,” says 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.

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. Though each hospital has different restrictions due to COVID-19, most allow at least one parent to accompany their child. Ask your child’s doctor when scheduling surgery.

Dr. Niezgoda says “It’s important for you to know the current visitation policies for your hospital during the pandemic.” Because of the nature of coronavirus, these restrictions are constantly changing with the current state of affairs related to case numbers. 

She says your anesthesiologist may give a medication to calm your child prior to surgery. Because of this, she says your child may not even remember going into the operating room which is a benefit for you and your child and can make separation easier.

Dr. Niezgoda says “I always discuss with the child preoperatively that their voice and their ability to express their needs to caregivers is very important. I ask them ‘who is in charge of your body’ and I encourage them to know as much about their health as possible because Mommy and Daddy may not always be with them.”

She says it’s important for you to handle the separation well, particularly for the younger child. 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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