Advancing Children's Health

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Preparing for surgery as a family

Published by , on Apr 12, 2017

Surgery can cause anxiety for both children and parents, particularly when experiencing it for the first time. Child Life Specialist Siri Bream has some preparation tips to help everyone face the day with confidence.

How can parents prepare?

The best thing you can do as a parent is educate yourself first. Ask questions of the health care team so you feel like you have a good understanding of what to expect.

Siri Bream

Siri Bream, child life specialist



Talking with your child

Be honest when talking with your child about an upcoming surgery and explain it in a way that they will understand. Listen to your child’s questions to see if they have any misconceptions so you can help alleviate these fears. You know your child, so you’ll be the best judge of whether to provide details, or simply a brief but accurate explanation. Most children want to know how much pain the surgery will cause; if there will be any needles involved; what they’ll see, hear, smell, etc.; and where their parents will be when they come out of surgery. It may be helpful to plan ahead for these questions.

Keep in mind your child’s age. The younger the child, the simpler your explanation needs to be. When preparing for an appendectomy, you may say something like:

“You know how your belly has been hurting? We’re going to go to the hospital so the doctors can help your belly feel better. You’ll wear special pajamas and get on a special bed with wheels. The doctors are going to give you medicine to help you fall asleep. When you wake up, your belly may still hurt a little but Mommy and Daddy will be there and the nurses will have popsicles for you to eat. What color popsicle would you like? We’ll stay at the hospital until you’re better and the doctor says we can go home, but we’ll bring some of your favorite toys and books. Which toys should we bring?” 

Young children can benefit from simple explanations repeated several times in the days leading up to the surgery. They may ask the same questions each time, but this is normal. Or, they may seem unfazed after you’ve explained it to them. This is also quite normal. There are a number of good children’s books about going to the hospital, including one written from the perspective of Rodney the Ram (our beloved VCU mascot!), that can help with understanding the basics. Assuring younger children that you’ll be there when they wake up and that you’ll be proud of them can alleviate some of their biggest fears.

Older children have a better understanding of their bodies and often have more specific concerns about surgery. Again, be open to listening to your child’s fears and clarify any misconceptions. It is important that you encourage your child to ask you or the doctor questions rather than turning to social media or the internet, which may lead to wrong information or “worst case scenarios.”

Assure your child that it is ok to be nervous, but that the surgery is meant to help them feel better, the nurses and doctors will provide excellent care, and you will be there.

Adorable little doctorPreparing through play

Medical play can help children feel more confident in what to expect. Have your child practice lying on a bed as if it were a stretcher and taking deep breaths. Use a toy doctor’s kit to practice taking your child’s blood pressure. Change roles so that the child is the doctor or nurse and let them explain what’s going to happen. Take your child’s temperature and give them the chance to take yours or a stuffed animal’s.

Packing a special “hospital bag” of comfort and distraction items can help ease anxiety while at the hospital. Include special books or a loved blanket, stuffed animal or toy, or let the child pick out something new to take to the hospital. Bring photos of family members or have family members/friends write cards to read while waiting for surgery (or look forward to reading after surgery).

As surgery approaches

Talk with your hospital to see if they offer pre-op tours or the opportunity to speak with a child life specialist who can suggest age-appropriate explanations for your child. We offer in-person and online tours so children and parents can get a sneak peek.

Ensure that you know exactly where to go on the day of surgery and when to be there. Review any pre-op instructions in advance as well.

When the day arrives

Deep breaths for everyone! Children respond to their parents’ emotions so it’s helpful when parents stay calm and confident. Remind your child of what you’ve talked about and what to expect, such as:

“Remember, when we get to the hospital, we’re going to check in and when they call our name, we’ll go meet your nurse. Your nurse will find out how much you weigh and how tall you are and check your temperature. Then you get to put on the special pajamas. We may have to wait for a bit for the doctor, so we can read your new book together. When the doctor comes, he or she may ask me some questions and then I’ll kiss you and hug you. I’ll be waiting right there for you when you come back. You’ll be done before you know it!”

Take a tour of our perioperative unit:



Reference the December article in your 2017 TidBits calendar for some calming techniques.

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