Preparing Your Child for Surgery

The prospect of surgery and hospitalization can obviously be frightening and overwhelming for any child. As a parent, you're worried too, but remember that your child looks to you for reassurance. You can help your child by preparing them as best you can with age-appropriate information:

For stories to read with your child about having surgery, please click here.

Preoperative Preparation

If your child is having surgery at any of the Ambulatory Surgery Centers (Bucks County, PA, Exton, PA, King of Prussia, PA or Voorhees, NJ) and you're interested in a tour, please call the main Surgery Center phone number and ask for the nurse manager.

The Child Life, Education and Creative Arts Therapy department staff is available to help answer any questions you may have about helping your child prepare for hospitalization or surgery. A child life specialist can explain what will happen, and why, in terms your child will understand. This kind of preparation can be good for you and your child, as well as for brothers and sisters, too. Please call (215) 590-2001 or email for more information.

You can help your child cope with the stress of his upcoming surgery by:

Being honest

In an effort to reassure your child, you may be tempted to say things that aren't true, but it's important to be open. Tell your child why (in easily understood terms) he is going to the hospital. If something will hurt, say so. Explain that although it will hurt for a while, the doctors and nurses will make sure he is as comfortable as possible.

Knowing all you can

Children can tell when their parents are worried. Learn as much as you can about your child's surgery; the more you know, the better you'll feel. Then you can help explain things to your child. In addition, ask the surgeon's office if you and your child can tour the preoperative area with a Child Life Specialist ahead of time. A tour will allow your child to see the sights, sounds and events that she will experience the day of surgery. Your child will also be better able to talk about her concerns and ask questions.

Encouraging discussion and questions

Talk to your child about how he can expect to feel after an operation. Open up the discussion and ask your child if he has any questions. You might want to ask a few of your own questions to find out how your child feels and clear up any misunderstandings he may have:

  • What do you think is the hardest part about having surgery and being in the hospital?
  • What things would make this part easier? What things could you do to make it easier?
  • What do you think will be the best part about having surgery and being in the hospital?
  • Who will come with you to the hospital?
  • Will you be spending the night in the hospital or going home the same day as your surgery?
  • What questions do you have?

Be sure to include your entire family — brothers and sisters, too — in one of your "pre-hospital" talks.

Reassuring your child

Emphasize that the hospital stay is temporary; your child will come home as soon as the doctor says it's OK. Point out similarities between the hospital and home such as regular meals, chances to play and having one's own bed. Some kids think they've been "bad," and surgery and hospitalization are their "punishment," so make sure your child knows it's not her fault.

Watching your words

Give very simple explanations and choose your words carefully. For example, say "The doctor is going to fix your arm" not "cut on your arm." For surgery, use the word "opening," rather than "cut." Don't explain anesthesia by telling your child the doctor is going to put her to sleep; she may be reminded of a pet being put to sleep and think she will die. Instead, say: "The doctors will help you take a nap for a few hours."

Affirming your child's feelings

Kids may be angry, sad, scared, or any combination of emotions. Don't tell your child it's wrong to be mad — just make sure he channels his anger properly. Tell him it's normal to be frightened — and it's OK to cry.

Reading books with your child

Borrow a book that describes a hospital stay and read it with your child. You may also want to do the same for brothers and sisters, too.

Playing with your child

Kids love to pretend. Play interactively with your child, using pictures, dolls and stuffed animals, to help her better understand what will happen. Illustrate the situation clearly for your child, and watch closely for misconceptions (such as: "This is happening to me because I did something bad."). You may want to ask one of the hospital's child life specialists for guidance on how to explain what will happen, and why, in terms your child can understand.

Allowing appropriate input

Giving your child a sense of control over at least one aspect of his hospitalization will go a long way toward reassuring him. Let younger children be there as you pack, and ask them to decide which security item or toy they want to bring to the hospital. You might want to include a favorite book and soothing music. Encourage your teen to pick out and bring a few comfort items from home, such as books, hand-held video games or a compact disc player.

Being available

Offer as much physical and emotional reassurance as possible. Even older children may need you more during this time. Hold your child's hand — but don't restrain her — during tests or procedures. Give your child lots of hugs and compliments, especially when she's weathered a painful procedure.

Be at the hospital with your child, whenever possible. When you can't be there, try to schedule another family member or trusted friend to fill in for you. Many hospitals allow overnight stays; check to see if that option is available.

Being patient

Everyone — and your child is no exception — can be less than perfectly behaved when he's facing the unknown or the new, such as surgery. Toddlers may cry and be fussy. They may be very clingy and become hard to comfort and console. School-age children may return to bedwetting or thumbsucking, or display new fears, such as fear of the dark. All kids may have angry outbursts or tantrums. Give your child lots of love and let him know you'll be there throughout his surgery. Remember that his changed behavior will usually improve after the stress of the procedure has passed.

Taking care of yourself

Be patient with yourself, too. Simplify your life as much as possible. Don't be afraid to say "no" to your usual obligations. Get lots of rest and eat right. Whenever possible, ask for help from family and friends.

Next Steps