Your Child is Having Surgery: How to Prepare

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The moment the Ear Nose Throat (ENT) specialist suggested that our youngest daughter needed to have tonsil and adenoidectomy surgery (T&A), my heart sank a little.

Having been a recovery room nurse for the past eight and a half years, I have seen how hundreds, if not thousands of children recover from T&A surgery. But I had fear of the unknown outcome of allowing my child to go under anesthesia. To ease our anxiety about our daughter having surgery, the surgeon let us know it’s a standard procedure with a relatively “easy” recovery. Although the surgeon’s confidence in his skills was definitely reassuring, from a parent’s point of view, any surgery, as routine as it may sound, can still make your palms sweat and your heart skip a beat. In the end, regardless of your child’s age, this is still your precious baby!

As a nurse in the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Post Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU), I want to provide you tips to consider in preparing your child for surgery. These are tips I followed and they helped a lot. It can be a scary time and my tips will hopefully help minimize the anxiety and focus on trying to make this as much of a positive experience for you and your child as it can be.

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How to Prepare Your Child Before Surgery

baby with mom and doc

1. Education. Now you have agreed to surgery for your child, start by familiarizing yourself with the procedure. Ask your child’s surgeon if there are websites that are recommend for parents and kids about the procedure. Ask for brochures or booklets too.

2. Communicate with your child. Communication is the most important part of the preparation. For this post, I spoke with Doug Leffin, MS, CCLS, child life specialist lead in the perioperative department at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Doug recommends allowing your child to ask questions about their surgery. “Parents often tell me that they don’t know how to tell their kids about surgery…But communicating with your child [about the surgery] is most important for them in developing trust,” shares Leffin.

When talking to your child about surgery, maintain an honest, but positive outlook and understand your child’s level of maturity. Leffin suggests that you can probably delay telling your younger child about their surgery even up to the day of the procedure to lessen any unnecessary worry while waiting for surgery to occur. As your child matures, a longer duration before surgery can allow them to mentally process and ask questions.

Tips for how to answer your child’s questions about their surgery and look at the positive outcomes:

  • Example response, “You’re having this surgery so you can breathe easier.”
  • Example response, “They’re fixing your back so you can be three inches taller.”

Being honest and positive in your answers will address your child’s need to understand their role in the surgery while allowing them to build trust in you (the parent) and the other adults (nurses and doctors) involved in their care.

3. Ask for a tour. Call the surgery center and ask if they offer a pre-operative tour of the facility. If your child is very young, it’s entirely your choice to bring them on the tour. If your child is older, a tour for you and your child can reduce a little day-of-surgery anxiety by becoming familiar with what the facility looks like, where it is located and meet staff that will care for your child.

4. Follow all pre-operative instructions. The day before your child’s surgery, carefully follow the pre-operative instructions as provided by the surgical center. Do not allow your child to ingest anything by mouth after the instructed time and this includes brushing teeth and or chewing gum. Now is a great time to give your child a good bath as they may not be able to until days after surgery. Also, prepare a bag with familiar items for the child to take to the surgical center, for example, a blanket, special toy their favorite electronic game. Items from home always help relieve anxiety and can make your child feel more at home—especially if your child will be admitted to the surgical center or hospital. If your child is old enough, perhaps they can help you pack the bag. Just be sure those items get labeled and stay accounted for during your stay.

I read a quote once from Benjamin Franklin that says, “An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure.” I hope the tips I’ve listed in this blog post are worth much than “a pound of cure” to get you and your child prepared for surgery.

In my next blog post, I’ll provide tips for how to prepare your child (and yourself) for the day of surgery. Keep an eye out for it in the second week of September!