Preparing Your Child for Surgery

Children often react emotionally to the prospect of surgery and hospitalization. Before admission, each child needs to be prepared physically, intellectually and emotionally for his/her individual surgery and hospital experience. A surgical experience can be approached as a positive event if children and families are well informed about the events to take place, and are aware of the experiences and sensations associated with the surgery. It also will be more positive if their concerns and anxieties are discussed and understood, and they are able to establish some familiarity with the Hospital staff associated with their care.

When to Begin Preparing a Child for Surgery
When your child is facing surgery, deciding when to introduce information about the surgical experience should be based on your child's age and level of maturity. A child needs time to think about information and ask questions, but too much advance preparation may create unnecessary worry. A general rule of thumb is to begin home preparation of a two-year-old, two days before surgery; a three-year-old, three days before, and so on. However, if your child attends a Pre-Admission Surgery Program, it may be necessary for them to attend it within two weeks of his/her surgery date due to scheduling. Nevertheless, home preparation is essential.

How to Start Preparing Your Child for Surgery
Attending a Pre-Admission Surgery Program is strongly recommended in preparing your child for his/her surgery. The tour that is included in the program is a key educational strategy for children, as well as their families. It increases familiarity with the environment, personnel and equipment. It also provides ample opportunity for families to ask and answer questions.

Parents in Partnership in Easing Anxieties
There are many ways in which parents can assist in the process of preparing their child for an upcoming surgery. Depending upon the child's age, maturity and development, some activities may need to be modified in order to be more effective. The following may help you with this process.

Helpful Hints

  • Provide simple explanations of what the surgery will correct, since many children fear a part of their body will be hurt or lost during an operation.
  • Children often have fears or misconceptions about their upcoming surgery. Asking and assisting your child to talk about what he/she is thinking, feeling or experiencing will give you insight on how to best prepare your child.
  • Answer your child's questions honestly and age-appropriately.
  • Use words that are non-threatening, appropriate and understandable for your child.

Avoid Using the Following:

Avoid: "Put you to sleep" (Like my cat was put to sleep?)
Suggested: "The sleep doctor will give you medicine through a mask that will help you go into a deep sleep. When the operation is over, the doctor will stop giving you the medicine and you will wake up."

Avoid: "Cut; open you up; slice; make a hole"
Suggested: "The doctor will make a small opening (as small as ... )"

Avoid: "Gas (Gasoline?)"
Suggested: "A special medicine that will make you sleepy."

Avoid: "As long as ... "
Suggested: "For less time than it takes you to ... "

Infants and Toddlers
Preparation for infants and toddlers is primarily focused to parents. However, if your child is older, a packet of supplies will be given to your child to discover and explore. Please use some of the ideas below to play with your child and introduce the items. Also, on the day of surgery, feel free to bring a comfort item from home for your child such as a stuffed animal or blanket.

Preschool and School-Age Children

  • Ask your child what he/she thinks will happen at the Hospital.
  • Have your child color a picture about his/her upcoming operation and explain what it means.
  • Discuss feelings, fears and/or misconceptions. Explanations should be simple and brief. Most important is that children need to understand that it is not their fault that they need surgery. They have not been bad and are not being punished. Helping them understand the need for surgery prevents guilt and shame.
  • Using dolls, puppets, or stuffed animals, let your child "act out" what they think will happen at the hospital. Parents should clear up obvious misconceptions.
  • Using medical toys also can assist your child in "acting out" hospital situations.
  • Reading books from the library in regards to taking a trip to the hospital or having an operation also can help your child prepare him/herself for the event.
  • Encourage your child to start a scrap book, including everything he/she receives from the hospital and possibly taking pictures as some of the events take place.

From the packet of supplies your child has received, here are some more ideas to help prepare your child:

  • Coloring Book: describes a surgery and hospital experience.
    • Read to/with your child.
    • Color with your child while talking about his/her expectations or concerns.
  • Surgical Hat: worn by nurses and doctors in the Operating Room.
    • Place on dolls or stuffed animals.
    • Explain importance: keeps Operating Room clean.
  • Surgical Mask: worn by nurses and doctors in the Operating Room.
    • Play peek-a-boo with your child.
    • Reassure your child there is always a smile under the mask.
    • Explain its importance: decreases spread of germs.
  • Anesthesia Mask: used to administer medication in the form of a special air that makes your child very sleepy.-"Try the mask on" a doll or stuffed animal.
    • Have your child practice blowing up a pretend balloon through the mask–encouraging nice slow, big breaths.
    • Talk about a pleasant dream that your child can think about while drifting off to sleep.
  • Cloth doll: used for play by your child.
    • Have your child draw a face on the doll resembling how he/she feels before surgery. Then, after surgery and back at home, draw another face on the other side, thus giving you a chance to talk about the whole experience.
    • Have your child "act out" being a patient.

Prepare them with similar methods but with less play. It is important that adolescents are active participants in the decision-making process of the hospitalization.

Collaboration between parents, nurses and Child Life Specialists is essential in preparing your child for surgery. Children who are prepared, exhibit less anxiety, distress and upset behavior. They are better able to cooperate and their behavior post-discharge is improved. It is important to prepare your child with all the necessary information since undefined threats are more upsetting than threats that are known and understood. And, always reassure your child that he/she will be fine and will return home again after the operation!

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