Sports Medicine

Preparing for Surgery

You’ve prepared your child for the first day of school, the first bike ride, the first game. But preparing for surgery is a bit different.

If surgery is needed, it’s important to help your child work through any fear or anxiety. When children are calmer, chances are, they’re more likely to cooperate with the care providers and have a positive attitude about recovering.

Here are some questions you might have about getting your child ready for surgery:​

When Should I Tell My Child About Surgery?

  • For toddlers: one to two days prior to surgery
  • For preschoolers: three to five days prior
  • For school-aged children: one to two weeks prior
  • For adolescents: as soon as you plan their admission to the hospital

Here’s why: Toddlers are able to speak and understand, but have trouble understanding time. If your child has too many days to sit and wait for surgery, they might start to get worried. So telling them about the surgery one to two days before will usually give just enough time to process the information.

Likewise, a preschooler should have enough time (three to five days) to digest what they’ve been told, but not enough time to start developing any misunderstandings about the surgery.

A school-aged child might need one to two weeks to understand surgery, or ask questions. The extra time will give them more opportunities to process what’s going to happen, and to come up with questions.

As with a school-aged child, an adolescent or teen may want time to process the information. They also may want to be part of the decision-making process and maybe let friends, teachers, and teammates know what’s happening.

Telling your adolescent or teen about the surgery immediately will give them as much time as possible to ask questions and state their wishes.


What Should I Tell My Child About Pain?

For many surgeries, your child will be asleep under anesthesia. If your child is worried about pain, you can say: 

  • There will be a little needle stick in order to get the anesthesia. But it’s quick, and your child will fall asleep quickly afterward.
  • There won’t be any pain during the surgery, and the care providers will help manage pain after surgery.


What If My Child Is Worried?

It’s natural for a kid to be scared of surgery. Exactly what your child scared of—and how you can provide reassurance—is dependent on age.  

  •  A young child might fear getting separated from parents. Emphasize you’ll be with your child until they fall asleep, and you’ll be right there when they wake up.
  • An older child might have more complex fears, such as waking up in the middle of the procedure. Reassure them that that won’t happen, and that anesthesia is safe.

 Anesthesia can have some minor side effects afterward, like vomiting or a sore throat. Let your child know that these effects are normal, temporary, and that the care provider can help with them.


How Much Does My Child Need to Know About the Surgery?

  • For a younger child, keep explanations simple (e.g., “You can’t eat breakfast that day because of the medicine they’re going to give you,” or “You’ll wear a blue gown”).
  • For an older child, explain the surgery in more detail (e.g., what to expect, how anesthesia works, where the surgeon will operate)

 Still not quite sure how much to tell your child? Just explain the process, and encourage your child to ask questions. Your child might have questions or feelings that you don’t know about.

 You can also ask your child’s care provider to walk through the process, from the time you arrive at the hospital to the time you head home. Your child might even be able to get a tour of the hospital, and a sneak peek into the operating room.


Should I Use Medical Terms?

It depends on your child’s age. For children under 5, stick to clear and simple terms, or use a picture to help illustrate ideas.

If your child is older, use correct medical terms and explain them clearly. This will help your child better understand the surgery—and will show your child that you appreciate that they have a more mature, sophisticated vocabulary than “ouchy.”

When you’re explaining surgery, use words that don’t sound dangerous or threatening. For example: 

  • Instead of saying, “The surgeon is going to make a cut,” say, “The surgeon is going to look inside you.”
  • Avoid saying, “The surgeon will put you to sleep,” which your child might confuse with what’s happened to a family pet. Say, “They’ll give you medicine to fall asleep” instead.

For more detailed information about preparing your child for surgery: 

  • Watch OIC’s “Preparing for Pediatric Orthopaedic Surgery video.”
  • Check out these tips from UCLA.