Preparing for surgery and hospitalization

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As a parent, you can play an important role in preparing your child for a stay in hospital. Learn about your child's operation, ask questions, and find out how you can prepare your child.

Key points

  • It is important that your child be given age appropriate information about what is going to happen and what they should expect.
  • If you do not know the answer to your child's questions then tell them you will find out.
  • Learn about your child's operation. Meet with your child's doctor and nurse before the operation and have a list of questions. Do not be afraid to ask questions if you do not understand something.
  • Encourage your child to bring a favourite personal item to the hospital such as a pillow or a favourite toy that will comfort them.

How do you prepare yourself and your child for an operation?

Sometimes parents are unsure of how they can best help their children prepare for a stay in the hospital or an operation. Most parents and children are more comfortable with their visit to the hospital if they know what will happen when they arrive. As a parent, you can play an important role in preparing your child because you know your child better than anyone in the hospital.

Parents often have many feelings when they learn that their child needs an operation. Fear, helplessness and even anger are common. Your feelings about your child's operation and your understanding of what is going to happen to your child can affect how your child copes with their visit to the hospital. Children are very good at picking up on their parents' feelings, even when they try to hide them.

Preparing yourself

Here are a few tips to help you prepare yourself for your child's operation.

Learn about your child's operation

If you learn about your child's operation, you will be able to prepare your child for it. Your child's surgeon will meet with you before the operation to explain what will be done during the operation and what will happen afterwards. The nurse in the clinic or on the inpatient ward may also give you information about your child's operation and hospital stay.

Ask if there is any written information (for example, booklets) about your child's operation. Ask your nurse to go over this information with you. Ask the nurse to explain any words or ideas you do not understand. Many people do not understand some of the words doctors and nurses use.

Ask questions

You may want to ask some of these questions:

  • How long will the operation take?
  • Where will I wait during the operation?
  • How will I know when the operation is over?
  • When is my child likely to be awake?
  • Where will my child be when I first see them?
  • What sort of condition will my child likely be in?
  • How can I best comfort my child?
  • When can my child eat?
  • How will my child's pain be managed after the operation?
  • When will my child be ready to go home?
  • How long will it be before my child can go back to school or out to play?

Find out who can help you prepare your child for surgery

There are other people in the hospital who can help you prepare your child for surgery:

The nurse in the clinic can help you contact these people if you have specific questions about preparing your child for the operation.

What can you do during surgery?

Make sure that the staff knows how to contact you at all times during the surgery. If you are in the hospital, tell them where you will be and if you leave the hospital, provide a phone number where you can be reached. While your child is in surgery, there are a number of things you can do to pass the time:

  • go have a coffee
  • read a book
  • chat with others
  • watch TV in the lounge
  • check out the hospital gift shop or nearby shopping
  • make phone calls or use the Internet to keep others up to date on your child's progress

Preparing your child

We recommend that all children having an operation be prepared. How and when you prepare your child for an operation depends on their age and how you think your child will cope with coming to the hospital for an operation.

All children (except infants) should be told that they:

  • are going to the hospital
  • will be having an operation
  • will be given some basic information about what will happen when they are in the hospital.

As a parent, you know best how much information about the operation your child can handle and how your child usually copes with situations that are new or stressful. Let the doctors and nurses know how you think your child will act before and after the operation. Once at the hospital, tell them about how you prepared your child and how you answered their questions.

Here are some tips to help you prepare your child for an operation:

  • Do give simple explanations using words your child understands. By answering your child's questions honestly and talking simply about coming to the hospital for an operation, you can help to correct any wrong information or ideas your child may have.
  • Do explain that the operation will help your child get better. Reasons given for the operation can include such things as "help you grow," "help you stay strong and healthy" or "help a part of your body do its job."
  • Do tell your child when they will have the operation and how long the hospital stay will be. Let your child know when you will be able to stay with them and how often you will visit.
  • Do encourage your child to talk about the operation and ask questions. Books with stories about hospitals can help your child understand more about going to the hospital. Ask your child to draw a picture about going to the hospital and write the story as they tell it to you. Then talk about the picture or read the story with your child.
  • Sometimes you can find out a lot about how your child is feeling by watching your child at play. Playing hospital with puppets, dolls and stuffed animals before and after the operation can help your child understand and cope with what happened in the hospital.
  • Do tell your child that they may bring a favourite toy, doll, soother or blanket to the operating room, and that it will be there when they wake up after the operation. Knowing that they can have something special close by at all times may help your child feel more relaxed before going to the hospital. Your child may enjoy helping you pack these items before coming to the hospital.
  • Do tell your child that while they are in the hospital the nurse and doctor will talk about what’s going to happen and answer their questions.
  • Do explain that your child will not feel, hear or see anything during the operation because of a special sleep medicine. Most children need to know that they will not wake up during the operation, but that they will wake up after it is over. Because most children have heard about a pet being put to sleep and never waking up again, try not to use these words to describe the sleep medicine (anesthetic).
  • Do not give answers to questions you do not know the answers to. If you are not sure how to answer your child's questions, tell them that you do not know but you will find out. You can write down the questions and ask your child's nurse or doctor for more information.
  • Do not make promises that you may not be able to keep when you talk to your child about the operation and the hospital. By giving accurate information without making any promises that may not be kept — like promising there will be no pain — your child will more easily adapt to any changes needed and be more trusting.
  • Do not promise your child that there will be no needles. Most children in hospital do have a needle at some time. Tell your child that they will learn some ways to make it easier to have a needle. Find out what you can do to ease the process for your child. If you are worried about your child being excessively stressed, find out if a child life specialist can pay a visit.
  • Do not promise your child that they will have no pain. Children have different amounts of discomfort after operations. Fear of pain is probably the most common fear about having an operation. In addition to pain medicine, you and your child will be shown other ways to help ease any discomfort.

How can you help your child deal with hospitalization?

Tell your child what to expect when they come to the hospital and why they need to be there. Be honest and use simple, easy to understand words. Do your best to answer any questions your child has. If you do not know the answer, say so. Reassure your child that they are in good hands and that they can trust the health-care providers looking after them. Reassure your child that you will be there with them as much as possible.

Bring items to the hospital that soothe your child, like favourite toys, books or games, along with items from their bedroom, like a favourite pillow or slippers. Have "treats" on hand with which to reward your child for being tolerant and following direction by the nurses and doctors. These can also be used to distract during difficult procedures. Help your child get acquainted with other children in the hospital, by taking them to the patient lounge. Make friends with the staff so that your child feels protected and feels as if they can turn to someone in times of particular need.

How can you help your teen deal with hospitalization?

Younger children are more easily entertained when they need to be in the hospital for treatment. Older children are more easily bored and frustrated by being stuck in one place often waiting for things to happen.

Here are some tips for teens:

  • Come up with a daily schedule. Write down when the doctors are on rounds, when meals are served and when the nurse will need to see you. Once your teen knows when they are needed, they are more freed up to make the best use of their time.
  • Check out the teen lounge, if there is one. This is a good place to meet other teens or play video games. If there is not one, encourage your child to seek out other children their own age.
  • Your child could take a book to the cafeteria or patient lounge, or go outside (with permission or accompaniment as needed) for some air.
  • Before being in hospital, arrange for a knapsack full of items that can be used when there is free time. This may include crossword puzzles, hand-held video games, sewing, knitting, a sketch pad and some coloured pencils.
  • Encourage visitors, but space them out so your child has as much company as possible during the day.
  • Encourage your teen to bring comforting personal items with them to the hospital, like their own pillow, a good luck charm, special blanket, stuffed animals and photos.
Last updated: February 18th 2010