How to Prepare Your Child for Surgery

By: Sarah Malvezzi, Child Life specialist

At Connecticut Children’s, we have a lot of practice caring for kids in a way that’s comfortable, empowering and even fun for them. If they have a surgery or procedure scheduled, you can count on us to keep them safe and sound every step of the way.

You’ll probably want to prepare your child at home too. Child Life specialist Sarah Malvezzi joins the blog with advice.

Mom talks to surgeon before son's surgery.

Model calm.

Your child will look to you to gauge how scary a situation is – so if you have your own questions or concerns about their upcoming procedure, reach out for information and support. Talk to your child’s care team at Connecticut Children’s. Check out resources like our Preparing for Surgery infographic, Safe and Sound guidelines and Surgery FAQs. Talk with a friend, family member or counselor. Remember that Connecticut Children’s top priority is your child’s health.

Give your child some time to prepare. 

You know your child best. But in general, the older the child, the more time you’ll want to give them to mentally prepare for their procedure. For example:

  • Teens: As soon as the decision is made to have surgery
  • School-age children: A week or two before surgery
  • Preschoolers: Three to five days before
  • Toddlers: One or two days before

Build on what your child already knows.

Chances are your child has already been to the doctor because of a medical issue. Start there, and follow their lead. If they understand the reason they most recently saw the doctor, build on that information.

Be honest.

Give simple, honest answers about what is being fixed in your child’s body and why. If your child will have to stay awhile in the hospital, be direct about that – but emphasize that it’s temporary, and they’ll come home as soon as their doctor says it’s okay.

Use neutral or positive words.

For example, you might say that the doctor will fix or open some part of your child’s body, rather than cut it. If your child is younger, be thoughtful about whether and how to share any details that might make their imaginations run wild.

Put information into words your child can understand.

Surgery can mean many different things: taking something out that isn’t working, putting something in to make the body work better, or fixing something that might be broken. Do your best to explain what will happen and why in terms your child can understand. Use examples they can relate to – for example, repairing a toy. Here’s how to explain anesthesia to a younger child.

Clear up any misunderstandings.

When you talk to your child about their upcoming surgery, listen closely for any misconceptions they may have. For instance, young children may think that the surgery is a punishment, or the result of something they did wrong. Reassure them that this isn’t their fault. Older children might worry that they’ll wake up or feel something during surgery. Let them know that a special doctor will make sure they don’t.

At all ages, focus on making sure your child has their facts straight, putting things into perspective, and explaining how we’ll keep them safe and sound. (Learn more about our safety program.)

Ask your child to explain to you what’s going to happen.

Teens and older children often hesitate to ask questions, and younger children may think they understand something even when they don’t. To check for understanding, directly ask your child to explain back to you what’s going to happen in the hospital. Do they know who will come with them? Do they know if they’ll be spending the night or going home the same day? How do they think they’ll feel after the surgery?

Use play.

Depending on your child’s age, you can act out what happens at the doctor’s office with your child’s favorite toys or a play medical kit, or read books with pictures of medical equipment. These are great ways to observe and talk about your child’s feelings, and correct any misconceptions they may have about their upcoming procedure.

Help your child work through their feelings.

It’s important to listen to your child’s fears and concerns, rather than assume you know what’s on their mind. Help your child put their feelings into words with neutral observations like, “You sound worried.” Ask what they think will be the most difficult thing about the surgery, and what you both might do to make it easier. Encourage them to express their feelings, and tell them it’s OK to cry or be scared, angry or sad.

> Want tips to help your child cope with stress? Two pediatric psychologists share strategies.

Give your child a sense of control.

You can invite your younger child to help you pack for their procedure, and let them pick a few items to bring for comfort, like a book, toy or blanket. Explain that they’ll get to change into special clothes at the hospital, but they can help you pick out the outfit they’ll wear to go there and back. Encourage your teen to create a playlist and bring a favorite book or handheld video game. If you’ll be spending a night or two, bring a decoration for their room.

Related links
Preparing for Surgery Infographic
Explaining Anesthesia to Younger Kids
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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