Kids and Surgery: How to Prepare Them

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When it comes to kids and surgery, emotional support before and after is key.

Going through a surgery, major or minor, can be a source of anxiety for parents and children. When it comes to kids and surgery, all young patients need reassurance and support from his family before, during and after any procedure.
Before we dive in we must recognize that every surgery and every child is different. A low-anxiety child going under a light anesthetic to have tubes place in his ears will need much less reassurance than a high anxiety child going in for a potentially life-threatening procedure. By following the tips below you can be a pillar of strength and comfort for your child and ease your own anxieties in the process.

Talking About Surgery
The type and amount of information you give to your child about his upcoming surgery will be based on his maturity level and age. You may sit down with your older child and go over the anatomy of the surgery in a book while discussing the benefits and possible drawbacks that come along with it.
For a younger child you may check some books out of the library about going to the hospital, talk about his type of surgery and what he should expect during the process. If you are preparing your very young child for a non-routine procedure, reassure him that the doctors are experts and have performed his type of surgery many times before. Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt staffs child life specialists whose job is to help relieve worry and fear in young patients.
“Sometimes when children come to the hospital, we find their anxiety level has increased,” says Shauna Grissom, a child life specialist at Vanderbilt Children’s who works with kids in pre-operative services.  “So what I like to do is to try and give them the tools to decrease that prior to going back to surgery,” she adds. Grissom has a kind and friendly voice and she makes a point of getting on a child’s level when she first meets him on the day of service — even getting down on the floor, criss-cross applesauce.


A child life specialist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt interacts with a young patient.

A child life specialist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt interacts with a young patient, meeting her where she’s at.


Have Comfort Objects Along for the Ride
If your child has a special comfort object, take it with you to the hospital. Most hospitals will allow your child to take a comfort object into the operating room and, while “Spot” may be stowed under the table during the procedure, your child will have it when he falls asleep and it will be there when he wakes up.
Although Vanderbilt Children’s works with hundreds of kids, every effort is made to make each child feel special. When admitted, children will have a team of caregivers from doctors to nurses to child life workers who are there to support your child’s emotional needs.

Hospital and Homecoming
If your child needs to stay overnight in the hospital, check with the staff to verify what items you can and cannot bring. For most hospital stays, your child will wear a gown most of the time. To help make him more comfortable, a set of pajama pants, sweatpants or leggings might be of comfort. For babies, using infant leg warmers will help them stay warmer and will not make diaper changes difficult.
Once your child is in his room you may or may not get the opportunity to leave depending on hospital policy. Make sure to check rules before your child’s surgery so you are well prepared.

Don’t Let Your Worry Show
If you’re anxious, chances are good that your child’s going to pick up on those feelings. Let him talk to you about his concerns and address them with care. Try not to let your worry and concern creep into the conversation. That will do nothing but fuel your already anxious child’s emotional state. Keep a positive attitude when you’re with your child (even if you’re very worried).


A child life specialist at Children's helps to put a child at ease.

A child life specialist at Children’s helps to ease a young child’s nervousness.


Give Him Leeway
Before and after surgery, be sensitive to your child’s needs. You will likely notice changes in his behavior. He may act unkindly toward his sibling(s) more than usual or cry about things that wouldn’t normally bother him. The reality is that, if he’s old enough, he’s likely as nervous about the surgery as you are. Give him a little room with his behavior and chores and offer a reassuring hug whenever needed.

Lavish the Love
In the weeks, hours and minutes leading up to surgery, give your child as many hugs and kisses as you can. Your support is something he needs during this time whether or not he knows it.

Accept Support
When you come home from the hospital with your child, you may find that you need a lot more help than you originally thought. If you have younger or older children, they will still need to be cared for. Dinner and laundry will still be there and your post-op patient is going to need more care and extra love. If you’re part of a community, accept support that comes your way whether it’s a neighbor offering to host your younger child for a play date or your mother-in-law who offers to cook your family dinner.
Whether your child is going in for a minor procedure or headed to the hospital for a major surgery, stay strong, be positive and keep the preceding tips in mind when preparing for the event.

Beth N. Davis is a freelance writer and the mom of four kids.

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