Preparing your child for surgery

Parents often ask for our input about how to talk with their child about an upcoming surgery. We’re also often asked when the best time is to tell a child about it. How you approach this should differ based on the child’s age.

With all ages

  • Use honest and simple explanations that are suited for your child’s level of understanding. Tell your child that you feel the surgery is the right thing to do.
  • Find a quiet time to talk and speak in a calm and relaxed tone. If you’re talking about the procedure, use neutral words to describe it; for example, explain the surgeon will “make an opening” instead of “cut.”
  • Encourage kids to share what they’re feeling. It’s important for children to express their feelings. Many feel frustrated, scared, curious or anxious. Let your child know that however they feel, it’s OK. Ask questions to make sure your child understands what you’ve said.

Tips for each stage

Infants and toddlers - At this age, how parents act will reduce stress and put a child at ease. Concentrate on preparing yourself. If parents feel at ease, their child is usually able to sense this and react in the same way. Infants and toddlers also feel soothed by familiar objects and scents. Bring along your child's favorite toy, blanket, lotion, books or other comfort items to help promote this.

Ages 2 to 6 - As children get older, they can be told that they’re going to the hospital and what will happen there. It can be hard for a child of this age to understand why an operation is necessary and your child may worry that they’ve done something wrong. Reassure them that the hospital stay is about having something fixed and is not a bad thing. Give clear and simple responses.

It can help to let your child be the doctor to a doll or stuffed toy. They can "operate" on it, give it "shots" or just apply a Band-Aid. Children may express feelings more clearly during play than if asked directly. Talk to your child about the upcoming surgery one or two days before surgery.

Ages 6 to 12 - At this age, children are able to understand the reason for the surgery. You may want to tell your child about the operation seven to 10 days before. This will give your child plenty of time to ask questions and express concerns.

Teenagers - It’s best to include teenagers in the decision-making process from the beginning. They often don’t want to ask questions and should be encouraged to talk about their feelings and concerns. Be sure to include teenagers in all discussions and decisions about their care, allowing them to feel independent and more in control.

At every stage, being available to provide reassurance and comfort is key. Spending this extra time together can help reduce worry and stress for all involved.

For more on helping your child and family prepare for an upcoming surgery: