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Preparing for Your Child’s Surgery

We want your family's experience at Johns Hopkins Children's Center to be a positive one. Therefore, we are providing you with the information and resources you need to know to prepare children of all ages for what occurs before, during and after surgery.

 

For more helpful tips, download the Parent to Parent: Preparing & Coping with your Child’s Surgery document.

Learn more about the services and resources available to help you and your child have a positive experience at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

How to Prepare for Your Child's Surgery

  • Before Surgery Day

    • A nurse will call your family the day before your child’s surgery (or the last weekday for surgeries scheduled on Mondays or the day after a national holiday) to inform you what time to arrive, and when to stop giving your infant breastmilk or formula. They can also inform you whether your child is scheduled to stay overnight at the hospital after surgery.
    • What to Bring:
      • Familiar comfort items (blanket, stuffed animal, pacifier, toys, etc)
      • If your child is on a special formula, you may want to bring this with you (there are refrigerators at the hospital to store formula and breast milk).
      • Comfortable clothes and personal items for caregivers, if your child is going to be spending the night in the hospital

    How to Help your Infant on Surgery Day

    • Your infant may be hungry because they are not able to eat anything before surgery.
    • You may soothe your child by swaddling, shushing, and rocking them; there are play and comfort items available at the hospital to help soothe infants.
  • Before Surgery Day

    • A nurse will call your family the day before your child’s surgery (or the last weekday for surgeries scheduled on Mondays or the day after a national holiday) to inform you what time to arrive, and when to stop giving your child food and drink. They can also inform you whether your child is scheduled to stay overnight at the hospital after surgery.
    • 1-2 days before the surgery, talk to your child about it using simple words. Explain what body part the doctor is going to fix.
      • Your toddler may worry about surgery if told about it too soon, as toddlers do not have a strong understanding of the concept of time.
    • What to Bring
      • Familiar comfort items (blanket, stuffed animal, pacifier, etc) and/or toys from home. While there are toys in the hospital for your child to use, allowing your child to choose what to bring to the hospital can give them a sense of control.
      • If your child is picky about snacks or has dietary restrictions, it may be helpful to bring something they like with you to the hospital
      • Comfortable clothes and personal items for caregivers, if your child is going to be spending the night in the hospital

    How to Help your Toddler on Surgery Day

    • Keep food and drink out of sight. Your child may be hungry since they may not have anything to eat or drink before their surgery. Toddlers may be easily distracted with toys and activities as long as they do not see food or drink.
    • Be patient. It is common for toddlers to become fussy or clingy surrounding a hospital experience. Try to provide comfort and support to your child while remaining consistent with your approaches to discipline.
  • Before Surgery Day

    • A nurse will call your family the day before your child’s surgery (or the last weekday for surgeries scheduled on Mondays or the day after a national holiday) to inform you what time to arrive, and when to stop giving your child food and drink. They can also inform you whether your child is scheduled to stay overnight at the hospital after surgery.
    • A few days before the surgery, talk to your child about it using simple words. Explain what body part the doctor is going to fix, using words for body parts that your child is familiar with.
      • It is important to give your child enough time to process the information, but not too much time to allow for fears and misconceptions to develop.
    • Provide opportunities for your child to express their thoughts and feelings related to the surgery. You can do this by asking open-ended questions, such as “Tell me about your surgery” or “What questions do you have about your surgery”. This will give you a chance to understand your child’s thoughts and potential misconceptions.
    • What to Bring
      • Familiar comfort items (blanket, stuffed animal, etc) and toys/electronic devices from home. While there are toys in the hospital for your child to use, allowing your child to choose what to bring to the hospital can give them a sense of control.
      • If your child is picky about snacks or has dietary restrictions, it may be helpful to bring something they like with you to the hospital.
      • Comfortable clothes and personal items for caregivers, if your child is going to be spending the night in the hospital

    How to Help Your Preschooler on Surgery Day

    • Your child may have fears or misconceptions related to the hospital experience. They may think that they did something wrong to cause the need for surgery. Use concrete, simple language to correct these misconceptions.
      • Children often fear the unknown and will sometimes create images in their minds that are scarier than what the experience will actually be like if they do not know what to expect.
      • Preparation for what to expect (using videos provided here or consulting with a child life specialist) will often alleviate these concerns for preschoolers and help them learn about what will happen on surgery day.
    • Keep food and drink out of sight. Your child may be hungry since they may not have anything to eat or drink before their surgery. Preschoolers may be easily distracted with toys and activities as long as they do not see food or drink. Some may want to choose a special meal or snack they will enjoy after surgery is finished.
    • Be patient. It is common for preschoolers to experience regression surrounding a hospital experience; they may revert to thumb sucking or bed wetting. These behaviors are often temporary. Try to provide comfort and support to your child while remaining consistent with your approaches to discipline.
  • Before Surgery Day

    • A nurse will call your family the day before your child’s surgery (or the last weekday for surgeries scheduled on Mondays or the day after a national holiday) to inform you what time to arrive, and when to stop giving your child food and drink. They can also inform you whether your child is scheduled to stay overnight at the hospital after surgery.
    • 1-2 weeks before your child’s surgery, talk to them about it using honest, simple language. Be truthful with your child about what they will experience and listen for any misconceptions or fears they may have. This allows your school-ager time to process the information and develop questions without allowing too much time for fears to develop.
      • Preparation for what to expect (using videos provided here or consulting with a child life specialist) will often alleviate these concerns for school-agers and help them learn about what will happen on surgery day.
    • Encourage opportunities for your child to express how they are feeling. You can do this by asking open-ended questions like “What questions do you have about surgery” or “What do you think will be difficult about having surgery”
    • Encourage your child to talk with their friends about the upcoming surgery. Some families will organize cards or videos to show support to children while they are in the hospital. Children may also utilize technology to stay in touch with family members or peers if they are missing school or other activities.
    • Speak with your child’s teachers to plan for your child to make up missed assignments and any attention your child might need once they return to school.
    • What to Bring:
      • Familiar comfort items (blanket, stuffed animal, etc) and toys/electronic devices from home. While there are toys in the hospital for your child to use, allowing your child to choose what to bring to the hospital can give them a sense of control.
      • If your child is picky about snacks or has dietary restrictions, it may be helpful to bring something they like with you to the hospital.
      • Comfortable clothes and personal items for caregivers, if your child is going to be spending the night in the hospital

    How to Help Your School-Ager on Surgery Day

    • Answer your child’s questions and talk about their concerns.
      • Common concerns about surgery for school-agers include:
        • Anesthesia: Help your child understand that their sleepy medicine doctors (anesthesiologists) will make sure they do not feel anything or wake up during surgery and wake up safely once surgery is over.
        • Change in Appearance: Your child’s surgeon can tell you what to expect so you may talk with your child about ways to minimize the appearance of the change. Changes may be short or long term; consider this when discussing these plans with your child.
        • Pain: Inform your child that the doctors will give them medicine to help manage pain after surgery. Encourage them to think about ways they have dealt with pain in the past and make a coping plan (deep breathing, squeezing an object or parent’s hand, listening to music, distraction with a show, movie, or game).
        • Missing Activities & Peers: Many families make a plan to help their child stay connected to school and friends if they miss activities following surgery. Your child’s surgeon will inform you how long your child may need to miss certain activities or how they can engage in certain modified activities safely as they recover.
    • Focus on the positive. Remind your child of the importance and long-term benefits of their surgery.
    • Keep food and drink out of sight. Your child may be hungry since they may not have anything to eat or drink before their surgery. School-agers may be easily distracted with toys and activities as long as they do not see food or drink. Some may want to choose a special meal or snack they will enjoy after surgery is finished.
  • Before Surgery Day

    • A nurse will call your family the day before your teen’s surgery (or the last weekday for surgeries scheduled on Mondays or the day after a national holiday) to inform you what time to arrive, and when your teen must stop eating and drinking.
      • Make sure your teen knows the last time they are permitted to eat and drink before surgery. They can also inform you whether your teen is scheduled to stay overnight at the hospital after surgery.
    • Involve your teen in all aspects of planning for their surgery, including conversations with doctors. Encourage them to ask questions during conversations to their doctors and learn about their surgery.
      • Preparation for what to expect (using videos provided here or consulting with a child life specialist) can be a great opportunity for teens to learn about surgery and discuss coping plans to manage pain and anxiety.
    • Encourage opportunities for your teen to express how they are feeling. It is often difficult for teenagers to discuss their feelings with adults; encourage them to talk to peers or write in a journal to process their emotions about surgery.
    • Reach out to teachers, coaches, and other important adults in your teen’s life to encourage them to continue to involve teens in events, school work, and other important milestones while they are in the hospital or recovering from surgery.
    • Encourage your teen to pack a bag with some comfort items (blanket, pillow, etc.), activities, and electronics that they may use while they are at the hospital.

    How to Support your Teenager on Surgery Day

    • Answer your teen’s questions and talk about their concerns.
      • Common concerns about surgery for teens include:
        • Anesthesia: Help your teen understand that their sleepy medicine doctors (anesthesiologists) will make sure they do not feel anything or wake up during surgery and wake up safely once surgery is over.
        • Change in Appearance: Your teen’s surgeon can tell you what to expect so you may talk with your teen about ways to minimize the appearance of the change. Changes may be short or long term; consider this when discussing these plans with your teen.
        • Pain: Inform your teen that the doctors will give them medicine to help manage pain after surgery. Encourage them to think about ways they have dealt with pain in the past and make a coping plan (deep breathing, squeezing an object or parent’s hand, listening to music, meditating, distraction with a show, movie, or game).
    • Loss of control is a common stressor for teens preparing for and recovering from surgery. They may be frustrated by a loss of independence and relying on others for help with tasks the regularly do on their own.
    • Be patient with your teen and encourage safe outlets for their emotions as needed.
    • Ensure that they have privacy when possible.
 
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