Preparing Your Child for Surgery

Preparing Your Child for SurgeryMany of us who work in pediatric care at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital are also parents, and we treat your child like our own. Hearing that your child needs surgery can be overwhelming for a parent. It is normal to be worried, but remember, your child looks to you for reassurance. Here are a few tips to help minimize your child’s worries and make this experience as positive as it can be.


  • Ask to speak to the surgery center staff or a child life specialist who may be able to offer suggestions, explanations or additional coping strategies. Ask for a tour. Call to see if they offer a pre-surgery tour or teaching session. St. Mary’s Hospital offers a pre-surgery tour for the Ambulatory Surgery department and has a certified child life specialist on staff. Our staff can help you and your child cope with the hospital experience.
  • A tour can reduce some of the day-of-surgery anxiety by becoming familiar with the facility, meeting the staff and knowing what to expect.
  • Ask questions. Often parents don’t know what to tell their child. Talking with your child’s care team (doctor, nurses or child life specialist) will help you become more confident and relaxed, while helping you understand what to expect and what to tell your child.

Communicate with Your Child

  • Fear of the unknown increases anxiety. Often what a child imagines will happen is worse than what will really happen. It’s important to be honest and prepare your child for what will happen and what it will be like for them.  Being honest and communicating helps your child to develop trust.
  • Allow your child to ask questions about the surgery and encourage them to express their feelings. To start, try to focus on the positive aspects of why they need surgery.  Explain the operation is being done to fix something wrong or to help the child get better. (For example, “You are having surgery so you don’t have so many sore throats or ear infections,” or, “The doctor is fixing your back so you will be straighter and taller.”)

Keep it Real — and Comfortable

  • Provide realistic choices to help your child feel more in control. Avoid making promises you have no control over.  Follow all pre-operative instructions.
  • Bring some personal comfort items. Have your child or teen pack a small bag and help select items to bring to the hospital (favorite stuffed animal, comfy blanket, books to read, a tablet or favorite activity to help with the waiting times).


When talking to your child about the surgery, it’s important to have an honest outlook and to understand your child’s maturity. Use a child’s age and ability to understand as a guide can help determine how much information to provide when talking about surgery.

Toddlers (1-2 yrs)

Because toddlers don’t understand the concept of time, talk to your child 1-2 days before the surgery. Provide simple, honest answers/explanations.  Focus on the surgery making something better or fixing something.  Remain calm and confident — your child will pick up on your feelings.  Using books or a playing with a doctor’s kit is a good way to introduce the topic and calming for both of you

Preschoolers (3-5 yrs)

Preschoolers need prep time, so talk to your child at 3-5 days before the surgery so they will have time to process information and ask questions. Find out what you child knows and understands about the operation.  Clear up any misconceptions.  Books and playing with a medical kit are good tools to help introduce the topic. Focus on what your child will actually see, hear and feel while he is awake before and after the surgery. Use less threatening words and choose them carefully. Use “make a small opening” instead of “cut open.”  To talk about anesthesia, avoid using phrases such as, “the doctor will put you to sleep” or “take a nap.” This could make the child afraid of going to sleep at the hospital or at later during recovery at home. Instead, try telling your child the doctor will use a “special medicine sleep that is different from night time sleep, so you won’t feel anything when the doctor fixes…”

School Age (6-11 years) 

Begin talking to school age children when the surgery is scheduled and at least 1-2 weeks before the surgery.   At this age, kids often pickup on more than we think and this may misunderstand what they hear.  Explain what part of body will be fixed and why.  Find age-appropriate books to read about the surgery or medical procedure.  Reassure them and be supportive, but honest.  Encourage them to talk about their feelings.  School age children listen carefully but may not understand.  Having them explain it back to you is a useful communication tactic.  Treat your child as normal as possible, even if they are extra quiet or moody in anticipation of surgery.

Teens (age 12 and up)

Include teenagers in the discussion about surgery with the doctor.  Offer opportunity to be involved in surgery questions and decisions.  Find out what your teen is concerned about or what worries them most.  Encourage questions and discussions.  Be truthful and answer all questions honestly.  Validate the concerns and allow some independence.  Be patient—it is common to have mood swings, especially when a teen is concerned about something.  Ask your doctor about websites or handouts with accurate information since teens often like to research topics on their own (and may get inaccurate or frightening information).

At Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital, specialized pediatric care and individual attention is our focus.

Your child’s health is our first concern, so we offer personalized care that keeps your child’s family, culture and special needs in mind. Our focus is the health of the children, but we know that having a child in the hospital is a stressful, uncertain time.  It’s normal for both you and your child to feel frightened or unsure, and we do everything we can to make the experience go as smoothly – and safely – as possible.

Content for this article was provided by Ilona Scanlon, MS, CCLS and Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital.