Preparing Your Child for Surgery

Prior to a surgical procedure, your child may be nervous and full of questions. As the parent, you may feel the same way. Specialists at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital of New York at NYU Langone have the answers to the most frequently asked questions by children and parents about surgery. We also have helpful information that can help you to prepare for your child’s hospital stay.

This includes a list of suggested questions to ask the medical team about surgery, tips on how to answer questions your child might ask you, and general guidance on talking to children of different ages about the medical experience.

Pediatric Otolaryngologist Dr. Scott Rickert and Child

These services are provided with support from the Sala Institute for Child and Family Centered Care.

“We care for the child and the family, and not only make them better medically, but make them better citizens, make them better advocates for healthcare, and improve quality of life—not only for them, but for the people they come in contact with.”

—Howard Ginsberg, MD

Division Director, Pediatric Surgery

Peace of Mind Hotline

For more information on how to prepare your child for surgery or hospitalization, please email peaceofmind@nyumc.org or call 212-263-1100. For information specific to NYU Langone’s Hospital for Joint Diseases, please call 212-598-6444 or 212-598-6461.

Questions to Ask Your Child’s Medical Team About Surgery

Some sample questions to ask your child’s medical team include:

  • Why is this surgery necessary?
  • How long will my child stay in the hospital?
  • How will my child look and feel after surgery?
  • What will be done to help manage my child’s pain?
  • What type of care will my child require at home and for how long?

The answers to these questions may help you discuss the procedure with your child.

Talking to Your Child About Surgery

Talking with children and adolescents ahead of time can help them feel less afraid or anxious, more prepared, and in control. It also gives them the opportunity to ask questions, so that you can develop a plan together. You know your child best, but here are some suggestions for starting the discussion.

Prepare Yourself First

Before you talk to your child, gain a firm understanding of the procedure and what happens while your child is at the hospital. Schedule a pre-admission hospital tour and speak with the doctor or medical staff about any questions you have. The more you know, the more helpful and reassuring you can be.

Be Honest with Your Child

Although children rarely say it, they may feel that their parents are not telling them everything. This can leave them feeling unsure. Answer questions as honestly as possible and in a way they can understand.

Use Simple and Supportive Language

Be sure to allow enough time to speak with your child, answer questions, and come up with a plan for the hospital stay. Try to avoid words such as “pain” or “scary” in describing experiences your child may have. Instead, explain why your child needs the procedure. Tell your child that it’s important to let the team know if something hurts, so they can find the best way to help him or her feel more comfortable.

If your child asks a question that you cannot answer, say that you don’t know, but you can get the answer from a member of the care team.

Use Age-Appropriate Medical Terminology

Use words that your child can understand and are nonthreatening. For example, say “small opening” instead of “cut” and “sore” instead of “pain.” When describing anesthesia, you can call it “special medicine that helps you fall asleep.” Avoid using the term “put to sleep.” A child might confuse that with what might have happened to a favorite pet. You can call a test an “MRI scan” but also explain that this involves a large machine that takes a photograph of the inside of the body.

A helpful tip is to use sensory descriptions. Share what a child might smell, hear, feel, or see while in the hospital. You can use photographs, videos, and dolls, for instance, to illustrate this.

Questions Your Child May Ask You

Depending on your child’s age, he or she may have questions for you regarding the upcoming surgery or hospital stay. It’s not always easy to know how much information to give a child or what exactly to say, but here are some suggestions.

Does Surgery Hurt?

You may want to say, “It won’t hurt during the surgery, because you are in a special sleep. Afterward, the place on your body where you had surgery may feel sore. The doctor or nurse can give you medicine to help the soreness go away.”

Where on My Body Is the Surgery Being Done?

Point to the specific surgery site. Tell your child that this location is the only part of the body affected by the surgery.

Why Can’t I Eat or Drink Before My Surgery?

Explain that the medicine that helps your child fall asleep works best when there is no food in his or her belly.

Can You Stay with Me?

Hassenfeld Children's Hospital recognizes the importance of families and encourages parents to spend time in the hospital with their children. You can be with your child 24 hours a day. One parent can stay overnight, and each room has a single person sleeper chair for this purpose.

If you need additional accommodations outside of the hospital for a second parent, guardian, or other family member, please contact Guest Services at 212-263-2092 or hospitality@nyumc.org.

Talking to Children of Different Ages

Children understand information differently at different stages and developmental levels, but anyone can benefit from some degree of preparation before surgery. Offering your child age appropriate information, as well as lots of love and reassurance, can help the experience to be less overwhelming.

Here are some ways to talk to your child about an upcoming surgery or hospital stay. If you have additional questions, please email our Peace of Mind hotline at peaceofmind@nyumc.org or call 212-263-1100.

For Infants and Children Younger than Age 2

Your baby can sense when you are anxious. If you prepare yourself by learning what to expect on the day of surgery, this can help you to feel calm, which, in turn, can help your child to feel calm, too.

Books and play can also help prepare your young child for a procedure. Encourage your child to explore a pretend medical kit. Familiar comfort items, such as a blanket or pacifier, can be reassuring. Hunger before surgery can make a baby irritable, so familiar distractions, such as favorite music or stories can help. See our books about medical conditions and treatment to help children prepare for the hospital.

For Toddlers and Young Children 2 to 6 Years Old

Fear of the unknown is a major issue for many toddlers and young children. At this age, children can benefit from knowing about the surgery a day or two in advance. Prepare your child by explaining, in ways your child will understand, what will happen. For example, “When the doctor fixes your ears, you shouldn't have so many earaches.” Emphasize how proud you are of your child every step of the way, from showing up at the hospital to taking medicine.

If you know something is likely to be painful, be honest and say something like, “You may feel a little sore” or “You may feel a pinch.” Let your child know that doctors and nurses can give him or her medicine to feel better if something does hurt.

Explain that surgery and hospitalization are not punishments for being bad. It’s very common for children this age to think they have done something wrong. Provide comfort and reassurance.

Remember that it’s typical for children to become clingy or upset about surgery or hospitalization. This kind of behavioral regression can last for a few days after leaving the hospital. Be patient and give lots of love.

For Children 7 to 12 Years Old

Children this age can benefit from having time—a few days to a week—to mentally prepare for a medical procedure. Encourage your child to pack his or her own bags and to personally ask the medical team questions. Also, give your child an assignment. "Your job is to tell me or the nurse if something hurts or scares you." When possible, try to respect your child’s privacy and modesty.

Help friends stay in touch by phone, text, and email. Display family photos, cards, and artwork around the room as a reminder of all the people who love your child.

Speak with your child’s teachers or guidance counselor about any planned absences from school. They can gather any schoolwork, help your child prepare for exams, and perhaps even send a “get well soon” card from the class.

For Teenagers

At this age, a teenager should have a voice in planning his or her treatment. Have your teen write a list of questions to ask the doctor or nurse before surgery or hospitalization. Encourage your teen to speak with the medical team without you present.

Give your teen as much privacy and independence as possible during the hospital stay. You can also encourage friends to stay in contact and to visit when your child feels ready. Maintaining peer relationships is vitally important at this age.

Talk with your child’s guidance counselor about ways to ensure your child keeps up with his or her schoolwork.