Explaining Anesthesia to Younger Kids

By: Sarah Malvezzi, Child Life specialist

At Connecticut Children’s, we know how to make kids feel comfortable and special, including explaining medical procedures in a way that doesn’t feel intimidating.

If your child has a surgery or procedure scheduled, you’ll probably want to talk to them about it at home too. To get started, check out How to Prepare Your Child for Surgery and our Preparing for Surgery infographic.

In this blog, Child Life specialist Sarah Malvezzi hones in on one common question: How do you explain anesthesia in words that young kids can understand? Here are specific suggestions for what to say.

> Learn about our Safe and Sound guidelines, including surgery FAQs for parents

OR Team talks with patient before surgery

What anesthesia does

When people have surgery, they get a special sleepy medicine so their body doesn’t hear, see or feel anything during the surgery. This medicine is called anesthesia. The doctor who gives you the sleepy medicine is called an anesthesiologist.

TIP: Be careful about words with double meanings. For example, if your child might be reminded of a family pet that was “put to sleep,” avoid those words. Instead, say something like “The medicine will help you take a nap until the surgery is done.”

How anesthesia works

Most kids are able to use a soft and squishy mask to breathe in the sleepy air. Some kids think the sleepy air smells like Sharpie markers or permanent markers, so you can choose a flavor of chapstick to go inside the mask to make it smell better. You can also take big breaths in and out of the mask (like you might blow out birthday candles) and the air won’t smell as bad. 

Other kids might need a special tiny straw, called an IV (that’s short for “intravenous,” which means “in your veins”) to give their body the medicine to fall asleep. If you need an IV, the hospital has special freezy spray to make it easier.

Why there’s no eating or drinking before surgery

Everything in your body falls asleep with this special sleepy medicine, even your belly. So if you had food or drink in your belly, there is a chance you could get sick and throw up. That’s why it’s important not to eat or drink anything the day of your surgery.

During surgery

Because of the sleepy medicine, you won’t see, hear, feel or smell anything after you are asleep.

After surgery

When everything is all done, the anesthesiologist (the doctor who gives you the sleepy medicine) will stop giving you the medicine, and you will start to wake up. You may be a little sleepy or confused at first, but don’t worry. Your nurse is close by to take good care of you, and mom or dad will be there soon too!

Related links
How to Prepare Your Child for Surgery
Preparing for Surgery Infographic
Preparing Your Child for a Drive-Through COVID-19 Test
Safe and Sound Info Sheet
Safe and Sound: Esmae’s Story

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