Your Child's Recovery After Surgery

Recovery after surgery is difficult for anyone, but especially for children, who may be overwhelmed by unfamiliar sights and sounds and may not always understand why they feel so uncomfortable. If you know what to expect, you can help prepare your child and help him better cope with his discomfort and fear.

Post-Op recovery room The surgeon will talk to you when your child's surgery is over. Your child will either go to the recovery room (often called a post-anesthesia care unit — PACU) to allow the anesthesia to wear off or to an intensive care unit immediately after surgery. Depending on the type of surgery he's had, your child may then go to a day surgery (or short stay) area for a short time before being sent home, or an inpatient hospital unit to recover.

Common postoperative discomforts

Most everyone experiences some discomfort and pain following surgery. How uncomfortable your child feels will depend on the type of surgery she's had.

Your child may have:

  • Pain, soreness and swelling around the surgical incision site
  • Nausea and vomiting (from general anesthesia, pain medicine and surgery)
  • Throat soreness (caused by a tube placed in the windpipe to assist breathing during surgery)
  • Restlessness and sleeplessness
  • Dizziness, especially the first time out of bed
  • Thirst
  • Constipation and flatulence (passing gas)

Your child's doctor and nurses will do all they can to help your child be as comfortable as possible after surgery. Be sure to ask what you can do to ease your child's discomfort, and be sure to tell the healthcare team what your child finds most soothing. You can also find more information on helping your child cope with pain.

Eating and drinking after surgery

After surgery, your child's doctor and nurses will decide when she may start drinking and eating again. She'll be started off slowly, with clear liquids, such as water, ginger ale, apple juice and popsicles. As long as your child doesn't vomit, she'll be given a light meal, such as soup or crackers. Don't force your child to eat, but do encourage her to get plenty of fluids.

Potential complications

Complications sometimes occur after surgery. The likelihood that complications will occur varies with each child and with each operation. Be sure to talk to your child's surgeon and anesthesiologist ahead of time, and make sure you understand the risks.

Here are some of the potential complications of surgery. How your child's doctor treats any complications will be based on your child's health and his unique situation.

  • Shock
  • Hemorrhage
  • Wound infection
  • Lung problems
  • Urinary retention
  • Reaction to anesthesia


Shock is the dangerous reduction of blood flow throughout the body, is most often caused by reduced blood pressure. If your child goes into shock, her healthcare team may treat it by:

  • Stopping any blood loss
  • Maintaining an open airway
  • Keeping your child flat, reducing heat loss by covering her with blankets
  • Giving her fluid or blood intravenously (through a needle placed in one of her veins)
  • Giving her oxygen therapy and appropriate medication


Hemorrhage is the rapid loss of blood at the surgical site or internally, and can lead to shock. To treat rapid blood loss, your child's doctor may:

  • Give him infusions (through a needle placed in a vein) of saline solution and plasma preparation to help replace fluids
  • Order a blood transfusion
  • Stop the bleeding with sutures (stitches), cautery (sealing damaged blood vessels with heat), or by repairing or removing damaged organs or tissues

Wound Infection

When bacteria enter the surgical site, it can cause a wound infection, which can delay healing. Wound infections can also spread to adjacent organs or tissue, or to distant areas, through the bloodstream. Your child's doctor may treat infection by:

  • Prescribing antibiotics
  • Draining any abscesses (collections of pus under the skin caused by infection)
  • Special dressing changes

Lung problems

Lung (pulmonary) complications sometimes occur because a child's discomfort after an operation can make it hard for him to take deep breaths or cough to clear mucus out of his lungs. Your child's healthcare providers will teach him deep breathing exercises to help keep his lungs healthy after surgery and encourage ambulation (walking around).

Urinary retention

Temporary urinary retention — the inability to empty the bladder — may occur after surgery, usually due to the anesthetic or pain medication. It usually goes away without treatment, but your child's doctor may need to insert a catheter (thin hollow tube) to drain the bladder until your child regains bladder control.

Reactions to anesthesia

Some people who undergo surgery sometimes have reactions to anesthesia. Common side effects include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Jaw pain
  • Sore throat
  • Bruises

Serious complications can occur, but they are rare. It's important that you talk to your child's anesthesiologist to be sure you understand all the potential risks of anesthesia.

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