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Child Life Corner: Preparing Your Child for Surgery

Blog Child Life Corner: Preparing Your Child for Surgery

My name is Lindsay Morgan and I’ve worked at Riley Hospital for over 11 years. I see patients preoperatively with the goals of decreasing anxiety, increasing the level of understanding and improving the overall surgical experience.


As caregivers we want to support and comfort our children as much as possible.  It’s not easy to prepare them for surgery when we ourselves don’t know what to expect.  As a Child Life Specialist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, it’s my job to help support patients and their families daily.  My name is Lindsay Morgan and I’ve worked at Riley Hospital for over 11 years.  I see patients preoperatively with the goals of decreasing anxiety, increasing the level of understanding and improving the overall surgical experience.  We look at pictures of the operating room, talk about going to sleep with a “sleepy mask” and waking up with an “IV straw” in their hand.  Through play and conversation we see the stress and anxiety being lifted right before our eyes.  Here are some tips to help you better prepare your child for surgery:

For Babies:

  • Keep their routine.  In preparation for surgery, keep the baby’s routine the same and make sure the baby and family are well rested for the day of surgery.  
  • Bring comfort items from home (blankets, pacifiers, stuffed animals, favorite toys).
  • Prepare for the time before surgery.  The waiting period before surgery when the baby cannot eat or drink can be very difficult.  Plan to distract, rock and walk during this time.  
  • Be calm.  Babies can sense your anxiety and it may cause them to get upset, too.
For Toddlers/Preschoolers:

  • Talk to your child before surgery. At this stage, we suggest preparing them one day for each year of age. So, if your child is 2 years old, start talking about their surgery two days prior to the procedure.  Briefly explain to them they’ll go to sleep for surgery and assure them they won’t feel anything while asleep.  
  • Use simple words.  Try surgery room instead of operating room and surgery sleep instead of general anesthesia.  
  • Bring comfort items from home.  Bring a surgery buddy (stuffed animal or doll) to stay with them during surgery.  Let them choose a blanket or favorite toy.  This helps give them a sense of control.
  • Play with a medical play kit and show them how to use simple medical equipment.  Kids learn through play, so pretend their teddy bear is going to surgery.  Listening to the teddy bear’s heartbeat with a play stethoscope, taking his blood pressure or simply placing a bandage on the surgery site is a great place to start.
  • Begin discussing “surgery sleep.”  Explain that they won’t feel or hear anything during surgery sleep.
  • Read about the hospital experience.  Find an age-appropriate book at your local library about going to the hospital for surgery.  

For School-Age Children:

  • Talk to your child a week or two before surgery.  Begin discussing why they are having surgery.   Explain there is a doctor who makes sure they stay asleep during surgery and remind them they won’t feel anything while sleeping.   
  • Be honest and realistic.  This will also help build a trusting relationship between the parent and child.  It’s normal for children to become quiet or angry in anticipation of surgery.  Encourage them to talk about how he or she may be feeling.
  • Emphasize that the child hasn’t done anything wrong.  Surgery is not a punishment.
  • Check their level of understanding.  School-age children will often listen, but that doesn’t mean they always understand.  Allow your child an opportunity to tell you what will happen when they go to the hospital.  
  • Explain the benefits of surgery.  “Once your leg heals, you’ll be able to run and play football again.” 
For Teens:

  • Use correct words and give honest information.  It’s appropriate for teens to want to research their surgery as soon as it’s scheduled.  Ask your physician for reliable books or websites to find accurate information.
  • Include your teen in plans and decisions.  Encourage them to make a list of questions and participate in discussions with physicians.  
  • Discuss a coping plan.  Do they enjoy music?  If so, make a surgery play-list with their favorite songs to listen to before and after the procedure.  Do they benefit from deep breathing?  Practice this at home when they’re calm so they know how to do it in times of stress.
  • It’s important for teens to know they are allowed to be afraid and to cry.  Encourage them to share their feelings with family, friends and the healthcare team.  
  • Involve their friends.  It’s important for teens to have their friends close.  Allow them to visit the hospital or keep in touch through phone calls, emails or cards.  

-- By Lindsay Morgan, CCLS
   Certified Child Life Specialist
   Riley Hospital for Children
   Indiana University Health

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