Preparing your child for surgery — both emotionally and physically — is an important part of helping your child have a positive experience.

Many of the concerns your child may have when preparing for a hospital stay are similar for surgery, plus the additional concern over pain.

Here are some tips for all age groups:

  1. Prepare yourself first. Learn everything that you can about why your child is having the surgery and about the surgery process. Being well prepared will help you feel more calm. And it will help you answer any questions your child has — both of which will help your child feel prepared.
  2. Communicate openly and honestly with your child in an age-appropriate way. Try to find books or other materials about preparing for surgery that are geared to your child’s age. This can help you understand what words to use for your child’s age. Our Family Resource Center has many resources to help.
  3. Encourage your child to ask questions and to tell you any concerns about the surgery. Knowing what your child’s concerns are — and finding the answers to address them or to reassure your child — will help both of you feel better prepared.
  4. Affirm your child’s feelings. If your child is nervous or sad about the surgery, let your child know that’s normal and okay. Encourage your child to express these feelings — and to channel them in appropriate, healthy ways.
  5. Help your child become familiar with where he or she is having surgery.
    • For surgeries at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, see the virtual tour and watch Amanda’s Surgery Adventure.
    • For surgeries at the Specialty Care Center, see the virtual tour and watch the Pre-Surgical Tour.
  6. Allow your child control over choices whenever possible: for example, by having your child pack a small bag with a comfort object and activities (like a toy or book) to bring to the hospital.
  7. Keep in mind that your child’s siblings might be worried as well; include them in conversations and activities whenever appropriate.

Preparing a toddler (1 – 3 years) for surgery

  • Talk to your child one to two days before the surgery.
  • Encourage your child to engage in pretend medical play. This will allow your child to become more comfortable with medical concepts. It will also allow you to hear any concerns or misunderstandings your child may have about surgery.
  • Your child is likely concerned about being away from you during the surgery. Reassure your child that you (or another loved one) will be there after he or she wakes up from surgery. 
  • Your child may be more fussy or have more tantrums than normal. This behavior is a normal reaction to stressful situations; try to be patient and acknowledge your child’s emotions.  

Preparing a pre-schooler (3 – 5 years) for surgery

  • Talk to your child three to four days before the surgery.
  • Ask your child about any questions or concerns he or she has about the surgery. Often, children this age believe they did something wrong to cause the surgery.  
  • Your child is likely concerned about being away from you during the surgery. Reassure your child that you (or another loved one) will be there after he or she wakes up from surgery.
  • Your child may fear damage to his or her body, or the pain of surgery. Talk openly to your child about any changes that will and won’t occur as a result of the surgery.
  • Reassure your child that while the surgery will not be pain-free, our staff use distraction techniques to minimize discomfort. 

     

Preparing a school-age child (5 – 11 years) for surgery

  • Talk to your child at least one to two weeks before the surgery.
  • Your child may be concerned about feeling pain during the surgery. Discuss with your child what the surgical process will be like, including before, during and after surgery.
  • Reassure your child that the team will make sure he or she is asleep throughout the surgery. If you are unsure about any aspects of the surgical process, talk to your healthcare provider before surgery.   
  • Your child may fear changes to his or her body. Talk openly to your child about any changes that will or won’t occur as a result of the surgery. For example, "The doctor is going to fix the small hole in your heart, but will not change any other part of your body."
  • Your child may be worried about losing contact with friends and answering questions about their medical condition or procedure. If your child will be away from school for recovery from the surgery, ask your child’s friends to send cards, texts or emails.

Preparing adolescents (12 – 17) for surgery

  • Your teen will likely be more aware of the reasons leading to the surgery, so talk to your child when the surgery is scheduled.
  • Your teen may be worried about a loss of control during the surgical process. Look for opportunities to allow your teen to be actively involved, including encouraging your child to ask the medical team questions directly.
  • Whenever it is appropriate, allow your teen to make choices, including about medical decisions.
  • Your teen may fear change to his or her body. Talk openly to your teen about any changes that will or won’t occur as a result of the surgery. For example, "The doctor is going to fix the small hole in your heart, but will not change any other part of your body."
  • If your teen will be away from school for recovery, encourage your teen to keep in touch with friends through calls, texts or emails.