What to tell your child before surgery

Hospitalization can be a stressful time for everyone. Fear of the unknown is common. Fears can be eased with honest information and preparation. It is important that you share information about the operation with your child before the actual surgery day, if age appropriate. Deciding when and what information to introduce about the surgery experience should be based on your child’s age and level of maturity.

Infants (0-12 months)

Infants need their caregiver close and involved in their care. Familiar faces and objects are very important. Bring a pacifier and familiar blanket to the hospital for comfort. Children need to have their surroundings remain as close to normal as possible. A bottle or sippy cup of their own may help them to drink more readily after surgery. Remember they respond to familiar voices and like to be talked to and touched.

Toddlers (1-3 years old)

Prepare your toddler the day before. They are learning to be independent so let them help by giving them choices in what to bring on their day of surgery, such as what toy, favorite animal, and/or blanket to bring. They like to master new things and understand basic information when given in small amounts. Remind them that the hospital is a safe place.

Preschoolers (3-5 years old)

Prepare preschoolers three days in advance. Talk to your child about the hospital and remind them it is a safe place where children just like themselves come to see the doctor. Give simple and honest explanations and answers. Let them know what the surgery will fix. Let them know that the nurses and doctors wear special clothes because of the "germ thing." Play is how children learn. Playing doctor at home prior to the hospital visit allows children to act out their knowledge of what the medical experience means. If your child talks about being scared, help him/her to find ways to cope; hold hands, read a book about the hospital, sing or count. Remember technical words are hard to grasp. Listed below are examples of softer language:

  • Blood pressure cuff: "will give your arm a hug"
  • Stretcher: "bed with wheels"
  • Anesthesia: "sleepy medicine"

School age (5-12 years old)

Prepare your child about a week ahead of the scheduled surgery. Let your child tell you about his/her fears and concerns. Be honest in your explanations. Ask your child what he/she thinks about going to the hospital. "Tell me what you think is going to happen at the hospital?" Fear of body mutilation is common at this age, so let your child know if a body part will look different and if there will be stitches, casting, or bandages.

Adolescents/Teens (12-18 years old)

Adolescents and teens are striving for their independence and own decision making. They have multiple concerns: physical appearance, body image, privacy, academics, social life, and future plans. Talk about the surgery day and encourage them to be a part of the decision process. Encourage them to ask questions while they are home and at the hospital. Give them privacy at the hospital whenever possible, such as changing clothes.

Siblings

If there are siblings in the family, encourage them to be a part of the experience by including them in the discussions and letting them ask questions whenever possible.