How to Prepare Your Child for Pediatric Surgery

Parenting a child in need of a surgical procedure can be challenging and stressful. Your child may be scared by the idea of surgery (and you may be, too) and need comfort and reassurance.

Taking the time to understand the treatment your child will be having and knowing how to comfort them before the procedure can lead to a better overall experience. Learn some of the best strategies that can help prepare you and your child for pediatric surgery.

Mother carrying child at a doctor's visit

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What Is Pediatric Surgery?

Pediatric surgery is the surgical treatment of diseases and injuries in babies, children, and teenagers. The surgical procedures are done by pediatric surgeons, who are doctors with specialized training in surgery for children ranging from newborns to late adolescence.

Although the definition of pediatric surgery is broad, the experience is very different depending on the age and maturity of the child. For instance, disruption of daily schedules and separation anxiety may be factors to prepare for in younger children, while older children may have questions that you may not know how to answer.

Each age group of children may need specific ways to help them cope with their procedure, and as a parent, you can have a positive impact on the process by using the following strategies to help them.


Newborns and Infants

baby in hospital
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For newborns and infants, preparing for surgery is mostly about preparing the parents for what is happening and what to expect after surgery. Still, surgery may disrupt the routines of babies and lead to irritability.

In the days leading up to surgery, try to ensure your baby sticks to their routine feeding and sleeping schedule unless your pediatric surgeon says otherwise.

At the hospital on the day of surgery, your baby may feel stress or anxiety because of the change in schedule and the new sights, sounds, and smells. It can be helpful to bring your baby's favorite toy to keep them busy and distracted.

You can also perform the personal, comforting strategies that help your baby calm down or feel relaxed, such as rocking and carrying them while walking back and forth.

When it's time for surgery, your baby will be separated from you to undergo the procedure. Depending on the pediatric surgeon's instructions, you may or may not be permitted in the operating room during the anesthesia portion of the procedure.

In all cases, be sure to remain calm throughout the process, and comfort your baby as much you can when you are with them.



Preschooler in hospital bed with dad and doctor talking
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Toddlers are more mature than infants and may require very simple explanations of what is happening. In the days before surgery, try communicating with them that the doctor will make them feel better and avoid getting into details.

For example, if their surgery involves their leg, you may want to say, “the doctor will make your leg better,” rather than a detailed explanation that will confuse them.

On the day of the surgery, toddlers may be tearful or fussy, as they will be required to go without food or drink before the surgery and not understand why. The hospital setting may also be upsetting to them, and they may need comfort and want to be held more than usual.

Be reassuring to them and allow them to do things they usually enjoy, such as drawing and coloring. Many hospitals have children's play areas, which can help keep them occupied until the procedure.

Toddlers can be more prone to separation anxiety. Ask your doctor if you can stay with your child during the anesthesia portion of the surgery if you feel your child may get too anxious when they are separated from you.

Toddlers will often take on their parents' attitudes, so if you appear to be upset and concerned, they may also be upset. Presenting a calm, happy attitude when around your child will help considerably when trying to keep them calm and comfortable.



Little boy in hospital bed with teddy bear

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Children at the preschool level of development are old enough to understand the concept of surgery and may be scared by the thought of it. Let your preschooler know several days before the surgery that it will make them better and not hurt their body. Also, ensure that they get adequate rest so that they are less prone to irritability on the day of the procedure.

On the day of surgery, your preschooler may be comforted by having familiar objects present with them, such as their favorite blanket and stuffed animal.

Consider letting them carry out their typical activities at the hospital, such as reading a book or drawing. If your child enjoys coloring, you may want to use printable surgery coloring books to help explain the surgery to them while keeping them entertained.


School-Aged Children

Nurse checking teenage girl in hospital ward
IAN HOOTON/SPL / Getty Images

While school-aged children are old enough to have significant fears about surgery, they may keep their worries to themselves and have concerns that may seem strange to an adult. Your school-aged child will require reassurance that their surgery will go well and that their pain will be controlled.

Before surgery, your child may worry about time away from social activities with friends, school, and sports. Letting them know that they will be able to do all those activities after they recover can give them a sense of peace.

Your child may feel more positive about the procedure if they have a tour of the hospital and operating rooms where the procedure will take place. However, talk to your doctor to see if it is possible, and also to your child to make sure it will be helpful to them rather than stressful.

On the day of surgery, school-aged children may worry that they will be left alone. They may repeatedly ask where you will be during the procedure. Assure them that you will be with them throughout the process, especially in the operating room (during anesthesia) if the pediatric surgeon will allow it.

If your child enjoys comic books or certain children's shows, use these things to help keep their mind off the procedure.


Tweens and Teens

Black nurse talking to boy in hospital bed
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Many tweens and teenagers are maturing and may have deeper fears regarding surgery. Those in these age groups may fear dying during surgery or being disfigured or different from their peers after surgery. At this stage, your child is old enough to understand what happens during surgery and requires a more detailed explanation than younger children.

Before surgery, they should have opportunities to ask questions and should be included in any discussions with the doctor about the surgery if they so desire. This age group may feel mad or sad if they are excluded from decisions and discussions about their health.

One way to help your tween or teenager deal with the stress of surgery both before and after the procedure is to allow them to bring their headphones, books, or other personal items that provide a distraction to them.

On the day of surgery, your child may have mixed emotions. Be sure to reassure them that everything will go well and answer any last questions that they may have for you.

If your child enjoys a certain smartphone game, playing it together in the waiting room can be a good way to calm down any nerves they or even you may have.

A Word From Verywell

Pediatric surgery may make you and your child anxious, but the right preparation strategies can help ease nerves and create a sense of peace. Try to be as calm as possible about the procedure, especially when you are with your child, and share information with them that's appropriate for their age.

Also, be sure to have thorough conversations with your doctor regarding the procedure so that you fully understand the steps needed to take before and after your child's surgery. This can help ensure a positive outcome.

1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Esposito G, Yoshida S, Ohnishi R, et al. Infant calming responses during maternal carrying in humans and miceCurrent Biology. 2013;23(9):739-745. doi:0.1016/j.cub.2013.03.041

Additional Reading

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.