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How to prepare your child for surgery

5 minute read
A child in a hospital gown about to go into surgery

Trying to work out how to prepare your child for surgery so they feel reassured rather than scared can be a delicate task.

The first step is for parents to find out all the information they need about the surgery from the hospital. This will guide them on how to explain surgery to a child, says paediatric doctor Nelu Simonsz. Parents should then be “open and honest” (in line with their child’s maturity) about what’s involved, Nelu says.

“What really scares kids is when they don’t know what to expect.”

It’s a good idea to avoid giving them much detail – keep it simple and use language they understand. And while it’s OK to put a positive spin on things, Nelu advises against sugar-coating it too much.

“Some parents will say, ‘You’re just having a little trip to the hospital, and then you’ll be all better.’”

This doesn’t bode well when children invariably wake up sore or with a brace, cast or stitches, Nelu says.

“They’ll lose a bit of trust in the health system – and in their parents.”

Related: Heading to hospital? Here’s what to pack in your overnight bag

When should you start preparing your child for surgery?

Finding the right time to talk to your child about their surgery will help ease any anxiety rather than add to it. Here’s a general guide according to age.

Toddlers

Wait until just before going to hospital because they may not understand the concept of time.

Pre-schoolers

It’s a good idea to wait until one to two days before admission, so there’s time for you to roleplay procedures with them, such as putting bandages on teddies or reading books about going to hospital.

School-aged children

Inform them one week before to allow them to develop coping strategies.

Teenagers

Talk to them several weeks before, so they can really take in the information and ask questions.

For emergency situations, there won’t be much time for preparing your child for surgery. But Nelu says parents should follow the same general advice and keep their children calm.

“Sometimes distraction and rewards need to be used too!”

Related: How do I know if I’m covered for a procedure?

A mother holding her child while they talk to a doctor.

How do you explain anaesthetic to your child?

Most surgeries require an anaesthetic, which is given through a drip (IV cannula) put into a vein through a needle. Parents can tell their child that a special numbing cream will be used on the needle site, Nelu suggests.

Rather than telling a child that the anaesthetic will “put them to sleep”, Nelu recommends parents explain that it’s a medicine that will help them to “drift off to a dream” for a little while. That’s because the idea of going to sleep in hospital might frighten young children.

“They may develop a negative association with sleep by having an anaesthetic, going to sleep – and then waking up in hospital,” she explains.

Parents can comfort their child by letting them know they will stay with them during the anaesthetic and will be there when they come back from their “dream”.

How can you support your child with fasting?

Children having an anaesthetic will usually need to fast for between six and eight hours. Fasting instructions must be followed to ensure the anaesthetic is safe and their surgery does not have to be delayed or rescheduled.

“Fasting is one of the most difficult parts of preparing your child for surgery,” Nelu says.

Nelu says parents can make fasting a bit easier by making sure family and friends don’t eat and drink around the child.

How else can I support a child having surgery?

Some of the calmest surgeries Nelu has experienced were when parents kept their own emotions under control in the lead-up to surgery. “They might be very stressed inside, but they certainly don’t show it, and their kids really reflect that,” she says.

After surgery, parents can support their children’s recovery by:

  • Following the post-surgery care plan
  • Ensuring their child gets enough rest
  • Helping their child eat and drink as directed by the doctor
  • Managing any pain and nausea.

Related: Going to hospital? Here’s why you should contact nib first

What are some of the common surgeries for kids?

Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy

This is when the tonsils and adenoids are removed, usually because the child is having frequent and severe bouts of tonsilitis or has breathing or swallowing problems. Surgery involves fasting and a general anaesthetic, and usually an overnight hospital stay. Children may have a very sore throat and ears for two weeks.

Broken bones (fractures)

Broken bones that need surgery usually requires fasting and a general anaesthetic or sedation. Children can be in a cast for at least six weeks and should rest for the first few days after surgery. Full contact sports may need to be stopped for two to three months.

Appendicectomy

This is when the appendix is removed because it has become inflamed or infected. Surgery is usually carried out on an emergency basis. A child’s stomach will be sore at the incision site, and they will likely need to stay home for a week and avoid sports for two weeks.

Does your child have an upcoming procedure?

If your family is with nib, make sure you check out our Going to Hospital page. This tool gives you information on health insurance, tips on how to reduce any out-of-pocket expenses and helpful questions to ask your specialist. To find out the details of your current policy, chat to someone about an upcoming hospital visit or get some guidance, call us on 13 16 42.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Dr Nelu Simonsz

Dr Nelu Simonsz is a paediatric doctor with a passion for educating parents on common health issues that affect kids. She believes that misinformation leads to unnecessary concern that can make parenting harder than it already is – but by sharing credible information in a relatable way, she’s committed to empowering parents. Outside work, Nelu is also passionate about Beyoncé – in fact, she’s so committed to the pop queen she once camped out at the airport to snap a pic with her!

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