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Preparing Your Child for Surgery

Taking the Mystery Out of Surgery

An orientation to the hospital can remove the mystery of surgery for kids and their families. We can help make the hospital experience more predictable, familiar and friendly. We highly recommend children scheduled for surgery, especially children ages three to 13, attend a pre-surgery tour. The tour is designed to help children and their families understand the sights, sounds, equipment and routines of the hospital for a positive surgery experience. Children and families are encouraged to ask questions and share their concerns during the tour.  

Tours are led by a child life specialist and may include some of the following:

  • Information on the registration process.
  • A walk-through of the outpatient surgery area, which may include the playroom, a patient room, operating room and recovery areas.
  • Education and demonstration of medical equipment.

To schedule a tour contact child life services at 616.267.1983 or email us.

Before, During After: What to Expect, What to Do

  • Night Before: Keep the night before surgery as calm and low-key as possible. Serve your child his or her favorite meal (if no dietary restrictions prohibit doing so), and help him or her get into bed on time so that he or she is well-rested for the coming day. Scrub up! Make sure your child is bathed, especially if you don't know how long the hospital stay may be. Use an antibacterial soap, such as Dial®, shampoo hair, clean and trim fingernails, and remove any polish.
  • Eating or Drinking Before: Eating or drinking before surgery is not recommended and may delay surgery. It is very important that the stomach be completely empty before surgery, since any food or fluids in your child's stomach can cause major complications. Your doctor will let you know what time to stop eating and drinking; it is usually after midnight. This includes water, chewing gum and candy. Please watch your child closely while he or she brushes their teeth to make sure toothpaste and/or water is not swallowed.
  • Morning of: Be ready for questions from your nurse, I.D. bracelets for you and your child, checking vital signs and receiving medication. Your child will be given a gown and pants to wear while they are here with us, but bring overnight items with you such as pajamas, toothbrush, robe and slippers. You can leave your suitcase of items in your car until after surgery is finished. Don't forget to encourage your child to bring along a favorite toy, pillow, blanket or stuffed animal for comfort.
  • Meeting the Anesthesiologist: An anesthesiologist is the doctor who will put your child to sleep for surgery. Before surgery, you will meet with your anesthesiologist to discuss options and answer any of your questions. Learn more about anesthesiology here.
  • During Surgery: During surgery, older children are usually taken into the operating room on a wheeled bed or stretcher. Younger children can walk or be carried. If you think that your presence will help your child fall asleep easier, it may be possible for you to accompany them. You will be asked to wear a hair cover, shoe covers, mask and a special gown to cover your clothes before going into the operating room. If you need to leave the waiting room at any time, please let the waiting room employee know where you will be. Once the surgery is complete and your child is in the recovery room, your doctor will join you to discuss the surgery and your child's condition. The nurse will let you know as soon as possible when you may visit your child.
  • After Surgery: After surgery, be prepared for normal procedures such as IVs, vital sign checks, pain and medications, fever, behavior changes and changes in eating after surgery. Once you go home, we suggest you start with simple foods that are easy to digest to decrease the chance of nausea or vomiting.  

Age-Appropriate Conversation Guidelines

Age-appropriate conversations with your child about surgery can help to alleviate any fear or concerns. The following guidelines are specifically designed to help you talk with your child about surgery in a way he or she can understand. Our staff is also available to help you at any time.

Infant/Toddler (0-3 years old)
Infants and toddlers can stress by sensing their parents' stress. They may show stress by crying or acting out. They are easily stressed by new people, new environments and new medical equipment. Bringing familiar toys, blankets, stuffed animals or other comfort items can be helpful. The best thing you can do to comfort your child is to hold him or her and stay calm.

Preschool Children (3-5 years old)
Children in this age group may not understand what is happening. Your child may have picked up some information from listening during office visits. They may know that they are having "surgery," but they most likely will not be able to fully understand. You can help by answering their questions with clear, simple, honest answers. Tell your child you will be there: that is usually the most comforting thing your child can hear.

School-Age Children (6-11 years old)

School-age children understand what having surgery means and may be fearful of the experience. You can help by explaining things ahead of time and preparing them using words they can understand. Using soft, child-friendly words such as sore instead of pain or poke instead of shot will help ease anxiety. Reassure them you will be with them as much as possible, and let them bring comfort items (stuffed animals, blankets, pillows) with them to the hospital. Hospital tours are particularly helpful for this age group. 

Older Children (12-18 years)

Older children may understand the reason for the surgery. However, whether or not they admit it, they may still be nervous. Encourage your child to talk with you about concerns or fears and to ask questions. Put them at ease by sharing correct information or speaking with staff together to get the answers they need. 

Parents and Guardians 

Surgery can be just as stressful for you as it is for your child. The unfamiliar setting, concern for your child and lack of sleep can take their toll. Rely on a spouse or close support person to help you, and rely on us for help whenever you need it.

Common Children's Questions about Surgery

Do I feel anything during the surgery?
No. The doctor will give you a special medicine that will help you go to sleep during surgery. You will not have to try to go to sleep because the medicine will tell your body what to do. This sleep is different from when you sleep at home. You do not have to feel tired or try to go to sleep because the medicine will do all the work for you. When your surgery is done, the doctor will stop giving you the sleeping medicine and you will start to wake up. You will wake up very slowly and will probably feel tired and sleepy most of the day.

What will I look like in the operating room?
You will look like you are sleeping. Your eyes will be closed and you will lie very still. You will be covered by the hospital gown and sheets except for the spot that the doctor needs to see for your surgery.

What do I have to do?
Ask the doctors and nurses any questions you have. You can even bring a stuffed animal or toy to be with you during your surgery.  Listen carefully to the doctors and nurses and give honest answers to any questions they ask you, so they can give you the best care.

Who will be in the operating room?
Usually, there are four people in the operating room. Some of the people you will see are a nurse, your doctor, the anesthesiologist (person who will give you the sleepy medicine) and someone to help the doctor.