Helping Your Child Prepare for Surgery

Having an operation can be scary and overwhelming for any child or teen. As a caregiver, you can help ease your child’s fear about having surgery and feel safe.

Talking to your child before surgery

It is important to talk to your child about having surgery so they are comfortable with what will happen at the hospital. When talking about surgery with your child, use clear words they will understand. Provide simple and honest explanations of what your child will see, hear and feel.

Use your child’s questions as a guide to understand how much information they want or need. Explain to your child why they are having surgery while reassuring them that surgery is intended to make their body healthier. Encourage your child to express their feelings about surgery.

Ask questions of the medical team so you are prepared to explain the process to your child. Possible questions include:

  • How long will the surgery take?
  • What kind of equipment will be used?
  • What will surgery sound and look like?
  • How will my child look after surgery? What lines, drains or other items will be attached to my child after surgery?
  • What is expected of my child and me before and after surgery?
  • Where am I allowed to be during surgery? Can I be in the operating room?
  • How will my child’s pain be managed?
  • What medicines will my child take?
  • Will there be limits on what my child can eat or do before or after surgery?

Simple tips for preparing children for a surgery

Infants/ Toddlers (ages 2 years and under)

Play with toy medical equipment at home, like thermometers, using dolls or stuffed animals. Allow your child to explore and ask questions about different medical equipment when able.

Preschool age children (ages 3 to 5 years)

About three to four days before surgery, provide honest, simple explanations of what is going to happen using books or other visual aids. If possible, provide opportunity for play with medical equipment or a tour of the hospital.

School-age children (ages 6 to 12 years)

About 1 week before surgery, begin to talk to your child about the experience. Encourage your child to ask questions and express their feelings about having surgery. Answer their questions honestly and use their questions as a guide to how much information they need to cope. Validate your child’s fears and help them find positive ways to express feelings.

Teenagers (ages 12 to 18 years)

Include teens in conversations about surgery with their medical team. Provide teens with honest and clear information about exactly what is going to happen and why surgery is needed. Support your teen and encourage them to express emotions in a positive manner.

How to support your child before surgery

The night before surgery, involve your child in hospital-visit preparation by having them pack comfort and play items such as a favorite blanket or toy. Bring pacifiers, soothing music, a bottle or sipper cup, pajamas, slippers and any other comfort necessities.

Make sure to pack things that you will need to care for your child and yourself as well, especially if you are spending the night in the hospital. Items to keep in mind include toothbrushes, comfortable clothes and phone chargers.

Waiting in the hospital prior to surgery can be challenging for your child. Infants and toddlers may be fussy during this time. Preschoolers and school agers may regress in behaviors, acting younger than their age. As a caregiver, you may also feel anxious or fearful. These are normal reactions to the stress of having surgery. 

As your child’s primary source of support, it is important to stay calm in front of your child. Use your voice and presence to comfort them. Otherwise, your child may sense your anxieties and mimic your emotions. During this waiting time, your child will benefit from distraction using toys, movies, games or just providing comfort holds.

Simple tips for helping your child after surgery

Infants (1 year and under)

The hospital can be a stressful place for babies due to the strange sights, sounds, smells, new people and changes in routines. It is normal for your baby to cry and be fussy after surgery. At times, your child may be very clingy and be hard to comfort and console.

You can help your infant by being reassuring and patient. Use your voice, smell, touch and presence to comfort your baby. Sing and read to them. Ask the medical staff for mirrors, music, crib toys and mobiles to create a soothing, comforting environment while in the hospital. The child life specialist at the hospital can help provide comforting and developmentally stimulating activities for your baby during hospitalization.

Toddlers (age 2 to 3 years)

The hospital environment and unfamiliar people can be stressful for toddlers. It is common for toddlers to be fearful of medical staff, medical equipment and procedures. It is also common for them to be fussy, cry, display more tantrums and seek comfort from a familiar adult after surgery.

You can help your toddler by providing distracting activities, toys and other familiar items. Be patient and calm as your child recovers from surgery. Try to maintain or return to your everyday routine as much as possible and set normal limits. Engage your toddler in play activities and allow them the opportunity to choose play items. The child life specialist at the hospital can also provide toys and other activities to help your child cope.

Preschool children (ages 3 to 5 years)

Preschoolers can display many fears including fear of strangers, fear of painful procedures or things hurting, and fear of being separating from familiar adults. Preschoolers may express fears by regressing in behaviors (having temper tantrums, bedwetting or thumb sucking). These fears and behaviors often improve after leaving the hospital.

Your preschooler will benefit from normal play and opportunities for choice when they are able. Provide support and validation of fears while helping your preschooler to express emotions in a positive way. Try to return to your everyday routine as much as possible and set appropriate behavioral limits. Your preschooler may benefit from the opportunity to engage in medical play to better understand medical interventions. A child life specialist can help explain the hospital interventions and procedures to your child.

School-age children (ages 6 to 12 years)

School age children often express fears and concerns such as being worried about having a part of their body changed during surgery, fear of pain or waking during surgery, fear of losing control, and worry about missing peer and school events. Your school-age child may begin to display new fears during hospitalization or regress in their behaviors.

You can provide your school-age child with support by validating their fears and helping them find ways to express emotions positively. Provide opportunities for your child to engage in normal and fun activities while in the hospital. Encourage your child to ask questions to better understand medical interventions. The child life specialist can assist with providing your child with interventions to learn about their medical care and cope with hospitalization.

Teenagers (ages 12 to 18 years)

For teens, surgery and a hospital stay interrupts their normal activities and makes them feel more dependent on adults. Teens can also exhibit concerns about the unknown, body changes, loss of privacy and fears of missing out on peer and school events.

Encourage your teen to talk to their healthcare team and participate in their care. Help your teen express their emotions through a positive outlet, and be supportive and patient. Help your teen stay in touch with peers and encourage them to engage in activities from home and those that are available in the hospital. The child life specialist at the hospital can help your teen discover means of positive coping.