Preparing the whole family for a child’s surgery

I can vividly remember the moment 24 years ago when I let go of my then 13-month-old son’s hand and watched him being wheeled down a sterile hallway into an operating room. While he doesn’t remember the event, his face at that moment showed all his fearful emotions, and I can just imagine what was going through his mind.

Today, hospitals are much better equipped to handle this moment of separation and the subsequent time spent mending in a hospital room. As a parent, you too can help prepare your child and your other family members for a pediatric surgery or hospitalization.

Preparing your child for surgery or hospitalization:

  • Be open and honest about the surgery, test or procedure. Reassure your child with simple, age-appropriate explanations.
  • Explain what the hospital is and why it is important for the child to go to the hospital.
  • Avoid negative words or phrases that may result in an unintended misconception. Use more neutral words to provide your child with an appropriate perception of what to expect when he or she gets to the hospital.
  • If your child is staying overnight, reassure him or her that you will sleep at the hospital too and pack a special bag with your child’s favorite pajamas, pillow, blanket or toys.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions; it will give you and the doctors and nurses the opportunity to address his or her fears.
  • Listen to your child’s concerns and feelings, and reassure him or her that those feelings are normal and understandable.

Preparations for parents before a child’s surgery or hospitalization:

  • Remember to take care of yourself, including staying fueled with rest and food. You will be more supportive of your child when you’re taken care of.
  • Ask for help from family and friends. Ask a friend for family member to help you coordinate other tasks in your life, such as child care, meals and pet care, to help reduce the stress of being away from home. Ask a friend or family member to be the designated contact person to share information about your child’s hospitalization. Leave his or her number on your answering machine to help alleviate the burden of calls so you can focus on your child’s treatment or surgery.
  • Communicate with nurses and staff about your child’s unique needs and comfort measures. You are the expert about your child and can advocate for your child’s needs.
  • Write down questions to help you remember your concerns when talking with nurses and staff.
  • Write down staff names and roles along with the information they share with you.

Preparing a sibling for a child’s surgery or hospitalization:

Many of the ways parents prepare a child for surgery should also be adapted and used to help prepare siblings for their sister or brother’s surgery or treatment. The most important thing to help prepare siblings is to give them the information they need to understand what their sister or brother is going through. Sometimes what children imagine is happening or going to happen is more frightening than the reality.

  • Provide honest and age-appropriate information about a sibling being hospitalized. If a child’s sibling has specific questions about the surgery or treatment, find out the answers from the nurse or doctor.
  • Explain what the hospital is, especially to younger children. Many children have never heard of a hospital or have a misconception due to a previous experience with a friend of family member.
  • Listen to your child’s concerns about his or her brother or sister’s surgery or treatment. Validate their feelings of frustration or fear without judging.
  • Encourage brothers and sisters to talk about their feelings. Ask questions to help children express their feelings about what is happening. Let them know it is OK to cry, be angry, be afraid or worried, and have many different feelings.
  • Keep daily routines as normal as possible, including school attendance, meals, naps and bedtimes.
  • Give your other children special attention whenever possible.
  • When possible, bring brothers and sisters to the hospital. Arrange visits according to your child’s interest and comfort level. If visits are not possible, arrange phone calls and suggest drawing pictures or making cards to send to the hospital.