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Emotionally Prepare Your Child for Surgery

Mar 31, 2021
mother and daughter hugging

The unknowns of an impending surgical procedure can be scary for children, especially if the hospital is an unfamiliar place. It is important to prepare your child for their upcoming surgery in an age-appropriate and honest way while validating emotions such as uncertainty or nervousness. Each age group can benefit from a certain amount of preparation and information based on their developmental level; everything a caregiver says and does can be adjusted according to the unique needs of the child.

Infants

Telling an infant about surgery is not necessary, but infants are most comforted by familiar people, objects, and sounds. Infants can easily pick-up on stress from their caregiver, so it is important to keep yourself calm by utilizing coping strategies. In order to promote comfort on the day of surgery, bring along familiar comfort items from home such as pacifiers, blankets, sound machine and preferred toys, especially for older infants.

Toddlers and Preschoolers

Toddlers and preschool-aged children benefit from information being provided in simple, concrete language. Tell your child that they are coming to the hospital no more than 1-2 days in advance and be honest about where you are going. Utilize repetition and reinforcement and focus on what your child will see, hear, and taste.

You can read books about going to the doctor, roleplay, and talk about events that will happen.  Demonstrate using a doll or stuffed animal and let the preschooler practice with the toy. Keep your ears and eyes open for fears or misconceptions and use this opportunity to model appropriate behaviors. Remind your child that surgery is not a punishment. Reassure your child that surgery is done to make something in their body better.

School-aged Children

Children who are in elementary school can be told about their surgery about a week or two in advance to allow time for processing and questions. Provide simple and honest explanations in scientific terms and use body outlines, models, and anatomical drawings. Focus on positive behaviors and strengths and reinforce those behaviors. Create a coping plan together to utilize the day of surgery and validate any feelings or fears your child may be experiencing.

Adolescents

Older kids can be told about their surgery when it gets scheduled. Talk about what is going to happen and encourage participation in decision-making. Be honest and encourage your adolescent to ask the doctor or nurse any questions they may have. Encourage your adolescent to choose techniques that will promote positive coping on the day of surgery.

Child Life Specialists at Nationwide Children's Hospital
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Lauryn Rozum
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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.