No parent welcomes the idea of a child having surgery. But there are ways to lessen the toll of an operation on both you and your child. “The single most important thing parents can do is to become as knowledgeable as possible about their child’s condition or illness and the planned procedures beforehand,” says Angela Kadenhe-Chiweshe, MD, Surgeon, Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. “Children from a very young age pick up on a parent’s anxiety or fear, so allaying your own stress by being fully informed will help your child enormously.”
Once you know what to expect, it will be easier to discuss your knowledge at your child’s level. It’s very important to match the amount of information you share with your child’s ability to absorb it.
Encourage your child to ask questions. It’s equally important to provide the kind of emotional reassurance only a parent can provide: letting your child know that he or she won’t be alone. Explain that you will be there the whole time, although you might not be able to come right into the operating room. Remind your child he or she still won’t be alone then, because the doctors, nurses, and other staff will be there to do the operation and be sure your child is safe and comfortable.
Depending on their age, children might start a journal about their surgery experience. If your child is too young to write, have him or her draw, paint, or color instead. You might also consider bringing to the hospital books, games, sketchpads, music player, or a laptop.
Here are more age-based suggestions on how to prepare your child for surgery.
For infants, it’s most important that parents communicate with each other. Comforting, familiar people and objects are also helpful, so be sure to pack your baby’s special stuffed animal, blanket, or pacifier. If you aren’t still nursing, bring the baby’s usual bottle for after the operation.
Talk with your toddler the day before the surgery, but not much further in advance. Try to clarify the reason for the surgery and that it has nothing to do with any imagined misbehavior on your child’s part. Give your child a choice of what toy or blanket to bring and what to wear to the hospital. Explain in simple terms what the nurses or doctors will do before they touch your toddler. Children at this age like to see their parents nearby, and they like to be held.
Three- to six-year-olds need more time to absorb information, so speak with your child at least three or four days before surgery. Preschoolers may be anxious about being separated from their parents, so reassure your child that you will be available as much as possible. Remember that preschoolers learn through play, so if they want to play doctor or surgeon, encourage them.
Both toddlers and preschoolers are most afraid of separation, so many hospitals allow parents into the operating room until their child is anesthetized and bring them to the recovery room before they wake up.
Elementary School Age
This age child loves to ask questions, so all you have to do is encourage them. Begin discussing the surgery a week or two before admission, and be honest with your child about what to expect. Involve your child in the planning process as much as possible. School-age children may have fears of anesthesia, pain, or death. Help them verbalize such fears, which you can then address. Maybe your child could discuss the surgery with a doctor, or visit the hospital ahead of time. Remind him or her about what will happen afterward—stitches, bandages, pain medication, and so forth.
Finally, Dr. Kadenhe-Chiweshe says, “Keeping in mind the reason for the operation or the ‘destination’ so to speak, gives you confidence to endure the ‘journey’.”