Child Life Services Help Families Prepare for a Child’s Surgery

Child life specialists are trained to help children and families understand and cope with the hospital experience. A child life specialist in the surgery area can help parents in preparing their child for the experience by using age-appropriate language, medical play, and comfort measures. In addition to the physicians and nurses, parents can contact Child Life Services before the surgery to help prepare the family for the visit. If the experience includes an overnight stay, child life is also available after the child’s surgery.

Tips to Help a Child Undergoing Surgery

  • Prepare Yourself First: Children can tell when parents are feeling nervous, causing them to also be nervous. Have your questions answered, and be aware of your feelings and non-verbal communication. A calm, supportive, and soothing presence will help comfort your child.
  • Be Open and Honest: Use concrete, age-appropriate language to talk about the type of surgery or what part of their body the doctor will be helping. Give simple reasoning for why they need to have it done. Reassure them that it is to help them and that they won’t feel anything during their surgery.
  • Explain NPO: Tell your child that they will not be able to eat or drink anything the morning of the surgery and the importance of that.
  • Explain What They Will See, Hear, Smell and Feel: Talk about some of the people they will meet (Nurses, doctors, anesthesiologists/sleeping doctors), and what will be done (vital signs: temperature, blood pressure, pulse-ox, listening to heart and lungs, and the anesthesia mask or IV).
  • Talk About Anesthesia/Sleeping Air: Explain that they will breathe in sleeping air through a mask so they won’t feel anything during the surgery. Older children, usually over 12 years will get an IV but younger ones will have one placed after they are asleep. Tell them it is a special kind of sleep, different than at home. They won’t see, hear, or feel anything while the doctors are helping them. When the doctors are done with their surgery they will wake up.
  • Encourage Expression of Feelings and Questions: Allow your child to share thoughts and listen for any misconceptions or fears. Allow them to play with medical play kits or read books about the hospital. Children use play as a form of expression, so use this as a fun teaching time.
  • Bring Comfort Item or Toy: Encourage your child to choose something special to bring with them.

Age-Specific Suggestions

  • Infant-2 years: Be aware of your own feelings. Remain calm and supportive. Bring comfort items from home, such as pacifier, blanket, etc.
  • Ages 2-4: Give clear, simple reasons for coming to the hospital one to two days before and then leading up to the surgery day. Medical play will help prepare your child for what they will experience.
  • Ages 5-12: School-age children are able to grasp more. It is vital to give them truthful facts and reasons why the surgery is needed. They often fear their bodies being hurt and may also be confused about anesthesia. Reassure them that they will be asleep the whole time and will not feel anything during the surgery, and also that they will wake up after. This age group most often gets a mask induction for anesthesia and then an IV is placed after they are asleep.
  • Ages 13-18: Teens need clear and complete facts about what will happen and why the surgery is needed. Preparation for an IV and also what to expect when they wake up is helpful. Involve them in choices when appropriate. Teens are often worried about privacy, body image, pain and how anesthesia works. Reassure them that they will be fully asleep the whole time but will wake up when the surgery is over.

For any questions or additional information on helping your child cope, or to schedule a personal pre-operative tour to further prepare your child please call Child Life at 216-844-5433.

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