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4 Ways to Prepare for Your Child’s Surgery

Child life specialists at Mass. Eye and Ear offer advice on how to reduce anxiety around your child’s surgery. 

Pediatric surgery can be anxiety-producing for parents and children. However, good preparation can help you and your child have a positive experience. Parents who understand what their child will experience before, during and after surgery can minimize their child’s worries and address misconceptions.

Brianna Peck and Ashley Hoyt, child life specialists at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, offer their insights on how best to prepare for your child’s surgery.

  1. Speak with your child about surgery ahead of time

It is important to introduce your child to the idea of surgery about a week or two in advance. Discussing what will happen will help reduce anxiety and give your child time to ask questions.

How you introduce the idea of surgery will vary depending on the age of your child, according to Ashley.

“For toddlers, we make sure they know mom and dad will be by their side,” Ashley said. “We let them explore the space to familiarize themselves with it.” Brianna added, “When you get into school-age, children want to know step-by-step what will happen and how they will feel.”

Adolescents should be more involved in their care plan and be given the time to ask questions and share their concerns.

  1. Use child-friendly terms

Brianna recommends that parents explain procedures to their children in an honest and age appropriate way.

“For most parents, it’s based off of what they feel their child can handle,” she said. “We try to stay away from the words ‘put to sleep,’ because of the negative connotation. Instead, we might say, ‘you’re going to breathe in this medicine and take a short nap.’”

Ashley and Brianna recommend the following children’s books to help explain procedures to your child:

  • Good-Bye Tonsils! by Hatkoff, Met and Hatkoff (2001) – ages 5–8
  • Curious George Goes to the Hospital, by Rey and Rey (1966) – ages 4–8
  1. Minimize unknowns with a pre-admission tour

Pre-admission teaching tours are scheduled the week before surgery to provide an opportunity to visit the space and learn step by step what will happen the day of surgery. During a pre-admission teaching tour, a child will get the opportunity to interact with different items at the hospital, such as an anesthesia mask, stethoscope, temperature thermometer and IV.

“Often, parents are concerned this could cause more anxiety for their child, when in reality, it helps reassure them. We tailor it to the child’s needs and explain things in a developmentally appropriate way,” said Ashley. “It also allows them to have some familiar faces when they return.”

Mass. Eye and Ear child life specialists will often send families home before surgery with hospital items, such as ID bracelets, pajamas, hats, shoe covers and sometimes even an anesthesia mask. This allows children to become familiar with the items so they are less fearful the day of the procedure.

“We try to take away the unknowns, which are often the biggest stressors for children. We provide them with reassurance by exposing them to what things will look, feel and smell like,” said Ashley.

  1. Bring comfort items from home

One of the ways children can feel safer is by having their favorite comfort item by their side. Toys, crafts, tablets and music devices can provide a distraction for children during their stay. Families are also welcome to use toys and crafts from the two play areas in the pediatric unit at Mass. Eye and Ear.

Child life specialists initiate play with the children throughout their stay to keep them occupied and engaged in order to take their minds off of surgery.

Additional resources

To learn more about what will happen on the day of your child’s surgery, watch our video “A Day in the Life of a Pediatric Patient” (you can watch above) and review the Pre-Op Guide for Pediatric Patients.

For more information about how to prepare for your child’s surgery or to schedule a pre-admission teaching tour, contact a Mass. Eye and Ear child life specialist at 617-573-4184.

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