Preparing Your Child for Surgery

Hospitals can be scary places, even for most adults, so it is easy to understand why antiseptic smells, IV poles, and other medical equipment would frighten a toddler or school-aged child. Whether your child needs a simple medical procedure or more invasive surgery, you can take several steps to assuage your own fears and your child's.

Be Informed

It is important that parents understand what to expect throughout the process, starting with the procedure and why it needs to be done, according to Maria Spear, child life specialist at Shore Memorial Hospital in New Jersey.

Experts agree that parents need to have a thorough understanding of what will happen to their child before, during, and after surgery.

"A less anxious parent often means a less anxious child," says Joneen Corrao, child life director at Miami Children's Hospital. "Arranging presurgical orientation is beneficial for both children and parents because they are able to see, feel, and touch medical tools in a nonthreatening environment."

Arrange a Visit

Call or visit your hospital and ask to speak to a child life specialist. These professionals help children prepare for hospitalization and surgery through preoperative visits, role-play and other creative resources. During these visits, children are allowed to touch and play with medical equipment.

Ask questions: What will your child look like after surgery? Will there be swelling, bandages, bruises, or stitches? Take notes and write down your questions so that you do not forget anything.

Also, ask about special programs that are available, including preoperative visits or classes that show children what to expect from their visit to the hospital in a fun and nonthreatening atmosphere. Some hospitals use props such as teddy bears, dolls, or other toys complete with bandages, cold compresses, and crutches. You can also look into other options to help reduce your child's anxiety, like acupressure.

What to Do for Your Child

Ingrid Holm-Olsen, CCLS, CTRS, a senior child life specialist at New York University Medical Center, offers the following tips for preparing your child for a medical procedure:

  • Ask if you can stay with your child during medical procedures . Most hospitals permit at least one parent to stay with the child at all times except during an operation. Stay for as long as possible. Comfort your child by touching him, singing, or using any soothing techniques that have been effective in the past.
  • Bring two or three familiar objects from home . Familiar toys, stuffed animals, pictures of family members or pets, or a favorite blanket can go a long way toward comforting a young child before and after a medical procedure.
  • Familiarize your child with what to expect before the hospital visit . There are different books and videos that can help prepare your child for surgery. Role-playing may also help. Take turns pretending to be the doctor, examining a doll or stuffed animal.
  • Respect his boundaries . Children overhear much more than most adults think. Medical information, especially when it is not accompanied by an explanation, can be very frightening. Unless the child is being included in the conversation, do not talk about your child's care in his presence. Respect your child's privacy and ask hospital staff to do the same. Knock before entering the room and be sensitive to who is present when exams are being conducted.
  • Reassure him that the hospitalization is not a punishment . Avoid using "good" or "bad" labels, particularly during procedures. For example, instead of saying, "You were such a good boy, the doctor only had to do this once," say, "You did such a good job of sitting still, I know that was hard for you."
  • When possible, let your child make choices . For example, do not say, "Would you like to come into the treatment room now so the doctor can look at you?" Rather, say, "Do you want to bring your blanket with you into the doctor's room?"
  • Encourage peer interactions in the hospital . Bring your children to the hospital playroom and help them stay in touch with friends from home, school, and church. Try to get homework assignments so your child can keep up with his classmates.
  • Get and give support . Watching your child endure painful tests and procedures can take its toll on your nerves and your mental health. Get support from family and friends, particularly parents who have been through similar experiences, and enlist the help of hospital staff whenever possible.

After surgery, keep your child as comfortable as possible by giving lots of reassurance and support. You may be allowed to bring in food or other comforts from your home. Just be sure to check with hospital staff before bringing anything into the hospital. And check the hospital's visitation policy regarding how many visitors can see your child at one time.


American Psychological Association

Mental Health America



Canadian Psychological Association


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