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How to Prepare Your Child for Surgery

Talking and playing with your child before surgery reduces the stress and fear often associated with the hospital by helping them understand what to expect. Preparing your child for surgery can be a different experience depending on their developmental age. It can be difficult to find the right words to say to your child. Keep reading to find the age group your child fits in to learn what they might be worried about and how you can help as their caregiver to prepare your child for surgery in a way that provides simple, honest, and accurate information.

Infants (0-1 years old):
Your child’s development at this age:
  • Depend on their caregiver’s support and presence.

  • Might have stranger anxiety. May fear new staff especially if they are wearing masks & gowns.

  • May have difficulty with new sensations (sights, sounds, smells, etc.).

  • ·May be fussier due to changes in routine, sleep, or feeding schedule.

What you can do to prepare your infant for surgery:

Your infant will find the most comfort in your touch and voice. Relaxed voices and body language can provide positive assurance. They may become clingy or hard to console during this stressful time. Be as patient as possible and give lots of love and try to have a familiar caregiver with them whenever possible. Be prepared for the short period of time when your infant will not be able to eat/drink and may need extra distraction and comfort. Pack your infant’s comfort items to provide a familiar environment for them in the hospital.

Toddlers (1-2 years old):
Your child’s development at this age:
  • Worry about separation from caregivers.

  • Learn by exploring their environment.

  • May feel uncomfortable by new people, new spaces, and hospital equipment.

  • May be upset before surgery due to hunger or thirst.

What you can do to prepare your toddler for surgery:

Because toddlers do not understand time, prepare them 1-2 days prior to surgery by using a toy doctor’s kit and stuffed animal/doll to help familiarize them and teach them about hospital items. You can also read books about visiting the hospital and talk about the “sleep medicine” (anesthesia) so your toddler knows they will have a short sleep at the hospital. If possible, focus on surgery as "making something better". Provide opportunities for your toddler to feel a sense of control by letting them choose which comfort item they want to bring to the hospital like a pacifier, stuffed animal, and/or favorite toy. Prior to and following your child’s surgery it is common that their behaviors might change, and they may be fussier than usual. Be understanding and patient during this time. Toddlers are sensitive to your emotions, so try to remain calm and be aware of how your feelings may affect them. Comfort your toddler with the reassurance you will be with them whenever possible and provide positive touch. Avoid making promises about things you do not have control over while in the hospital.

Preschoolers (3-5 years old):

Your child’s development at this age:
  • Having an active imagination and magical thinking can make surgery seem much worse than it is.

  • Uses play to learn about experiences and express emotions.

  • Likes demonstrating independence.

  • May believe surgery is a result of bad behavior and perceive it as punishment.

  • Can feel uncomfortable with new people, spaces, and hospital equipment.

  • May be fearful of bodily harm or injury.

What you can do to prepare your preschooler for surgery:

Prepare your child approximately 3-5 days before the surgery by using soft words to explain why they need surgery, what body parts will be affected, and what may be different when they wake up (such as a cast or bandage). Be mindful of your word choice and explain using simple, clear language. Avoid using ambiguous words or phrases that have a double meaning. For example, rather than saying “the doctor will put you to sleep” say “the doctor will give you medicine to help you sleep during your surgery, so you do not feel anything”. Do share information regarding what they WILL feel, see, and hear during the hospital time in general – especially if this is a new environment for them. Don’t forget to use PLAY, as this is how children process and express themselves. Use a play doctor’s kit and a doll or stuffed animal to practice going to the hospital. Pay attention to any fears or misunderstandings your child is showing through play. Make sure your child understands that the surgery is not their fault. Let them know that it is ok to be afraid and to cry and be open to all expressions of emotion and encourage them to ask questions. Discuss ways that may help your child relax if they are feeling scared (hugs from parents, watching a movie, blowing bubbles, etc.) and have your child help pack a bag for the hospital with their favorite toys, blanket, stuffed animal, etc.

School-age Children (6-12 years old):

Your child’s development at this age:
  • Wants more control and independence in daily activities.

  • Like to be successful and enjoys completing tasks.

  • Can feel uncomfortable with new people, spaces, and hospital equipment.

  • May be curious about anesthesia and how it keeps them asleep (fear waking up during surgery).

  • May be worried about missing school or activities after surgery.

  • Easily feel embarrassed about things they say or do.

  • Afraid of bodily damage and change.

What you can do to prepare your school-age child for surgery:

Discuss the upcoming surgery 1 week in advance by sharing sensory information and details about what will happen before & after surgery, why they need surgery, what part body will be affected, and what may be different when he/she wakes up (such as cast or bandage). Be honest and do not lie about what will happen or if something may be painful. Explain the anesthesiologist’s role as the doctor whose job it is to make sure patients stay asleep and do not feel anything throughout their entire surgery. Using pictures or educational books to prepare is helpful at this age. Show support, especially if your child shows different behaviors than usual. It’s normal for their worries to show themselves through anger or isolation. Encourage open conversation about their feelings and allow your child to ask questions. Repetition is helpful. Have your child explain back to you what will happen during their hospital visit. They may have been listening but may not understand everything that was shared. Be aware of your conversations with others around your child. They will be listening and may misunderstand what is said, leading to unnecessary fear. Discuss any ways that may help your child relax if they are feeling anxious (watching movies, listening to music, taking deep breaths, etc.). In addition, provide opportunities for choices and control like letting them pack their own bag of comfort items and activities for use in the hospital. You may even want to ask the hospital staff if your child’s friends or family can visit after the surgery.

Teenagers (13-18 years old):

Your child’s development at this age:
  • Fear losing their independence.

  • Missing peers and worry about how their social life will be affected due to a hospital stay.

  • May request to be involved in medical discussions and have the desire to know more specific details about their surgery.

  • Worry about possible pain and body changes after surgery.

What you can do to prepare your teenager for surgery:

Let your teen know as soon as the surgery plans begin, as they need time to process information and prepare themselves. Discuss any possible changes in appearance or daily activities because of his/her surgery. Talk about anesthesia and remind them that they will not feel, see, or hear anything during surgery. Be honest and open, as they may become frustrated if they think people are hiding information from them. Teens cope better when they understand what is happening with their body. Do not assume they understand, even if they say they do. Find someone, a family member, friend, or staff person, who they trust and feel comfortable talking with. Encourage questions and open conversation about their feelings. Give your teen as much control as possible; include them in discussions about their care with the medical team and allow them to voice their opinion when it is an option. Model patience and be understanding of mood swings and changes in behavior. All teens cope differently, and their affect may fluctuate between quiet and withdrawn to attention-seeking or very upset. Remember that any unusual emotions will settle down once your teen feels back to their baseline. Discuss with your teen what to do if he/she feels anxious (listening to music, speaking to friends/family, deep breathing exercises, etc.) and encourage them to pack a bag for the hospital visit with personal items (phone, laptop, headphones, journal, etc.) Socialization with friends is most important to your teen so encourage them to invite friends to visit when they feel ready. Keep communication open through social media, text, and calls if desired by your teen. And finally, remember that teens are sensitive about their body image so provide privacy whenever possible.


If you think your child would benefit from additional support and preparation prior to their surgery, we are here to help. Connect with us today!


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