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 you are looking for additional guidance or have more questions about preparing your child for surgery, a child life specialist (CLS) can be a helpful resource. A CLS is a trained member of the multidisciplinary team who can meet with your child to explain what will happen, and why, in terms your child will understand. Child life staff are also available by phone or email to answer questions and provide resources to caregivers.

If you would like to speak to a CLS, please contact us online.

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 are not accurate, however, it is important to be honest. Tell your child why he is going to the hospital, in simple terms. 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 meet with a Child Life Specialist (CLS) ahead of time.  A CLS is a trained member of the team who can talk with your child to explain what will happen in terms your child will understand.  Your child will also be better able to talk about her concerns and ask questions when she knows more.

Encouraging discussion and questions

Talk to your child about how he may feel about going to the hospital and/or after surgery. Remember that children of different ages will need differing amounts of time to process the information. For recommendations on when to begin these conversations, click here. 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 know about the hospital/surgery?
  • 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 we do to help make it easier?
  • What do you think will be the best part about having surgery and being in the hospital?
  • Is there anything you’re worried or wondering about the hospital?
  • 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 or help (the body part)” when describing the reason for surgery.  An incision can be described as “making a small opening” rather than “cutting your skin.”   Instead of explaining anesthesia by telling your child the doctor is going to put her to sleep, instead try saying, “The doctor will give you special sleep medicine (anesthesia) so you do not feel, see, or hear anything during your surgery.” Saying “put to sleep” may remind her of a pet being put to sleep and may create unnecessary concerns.  

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

Reading books about the hospital and surgery can be helpful for children and their siblings to learn about the experience in a non-threatening way.  If you read these books before discussing the child’s own surgery, you can reference these positive and familiar stories in your explanation.  Two books we recommend are Bernstein Bears: Hospital Friends and Franklin Goes to the Hospital. Click here to see a list of resources that may be helpful in preparing your child for their surgery.

Playing with your child

Kids love to pretend. Play interactively with your child, using dolls, stuffed animals, and pretend doctor’s kit 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 for the hospital stay and ask them to pick a comfort item or favorite toy they want to bring to the hospital. Older children and teens should also bring a few comfort items such as a phone, a tablet or books.

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 and offer extra hugs especially when they are uncomfortable following surgery.

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.  We know how much your child needs you to help them through this stressful time and if they need to stay overnight, having a caregiver or loved one will help them feel more comfortable. Check with your child’s healthcare team to see what options are available.

Being patient

Everyone — and your child is no exception — can display behaviors when he's facing the unknown or a new experience, 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 or surgery 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