How to Ease Your Child's Fears About Surgery

University of Missouri Children's Hospital Child Life specialist and child

Preparing for a surgery can make anyone nervous, and it can be especially frightening for children.

“Since kids thrive on structure, surgery often causes patients to feel out of control,” said Erin Daugherty, a Child Life specialist with the surgery department at MU Children’s Hospital. “Along with that, children often face separation anxiety when leaving their family for surgery and fear the pain associated with surgery.”

Talking with your child about what to expect ahead of time might help your child feel less afraid. Some things to do before coming to the hospital:

  • Listen to your child.
  • Be honest about what will happen.
  • Use short, simple terms to explain things.
  • Encourage questions and expression of fears.
  • Let your child know that having to go to the hospital does not mean he or she has done something wrong.
  • Explain that he or she will have special medicine to help his or her body not be awake during surgery and that he or she will wake up when the procedure is over.
  • Reassure him or her that if something hurts, there are ways to help the pain, including medicine, relaxation and distraction.
  • Emphasize that the hospital stay is temporary and focus on what your child will be able to do when he or she goes home.
  • Pack some special items from home to help your child feel more comfortable during his or her hospital stay. For younger children, consider a favorite toy to accompany them into surgery. For older children, a favorite pillow or blanket might offer comfort.

And when you arrive at the hospital, the Child Life specialists are there to help.

“Child Life specialists use their education in child development to address age-related fears throughout the hospital, ” Daugherty said. “In an effort to normalize the environment and to make it more comfortable, play and developmentally appropriate activities are provided. Child Life specialists also build supportive relationships with children by using age-appropriate preparation of what to expect during their visit and discussing ways to cope with the aspects of their visit that might be challenging. We then plan to provide support and/or distraction during the transition to the operating room until patients are sound asleep.”

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