How to prepare a child for surgery

An age-appropriate plan to help a child (and you) get ready

The idea of surgery can be frightening and overwhelming for any child. As a parent, you’re probably worried too. Fortunately, a little preparation can help reduce everyone’s fears and improve the experience.

“Having a plan and knowledge of the situation can help kids and parents feel less anxious about anesthesia and surgery, and get through the recovery period faster,” said Mary E. Fallat, M.D., pediatric general surgeon with Norton Children’s Hospital and the UofL Physicians. “The key is to provide information at your child’s level, correct any misunderstandings and calm any fears.”

Dr. Fallat said kids of all ages cope much better if they have an idea of what’s going to happen and why the surgery is necessary. To do this, parents should prepare themselves first and correct any misconceptions of their own.

“If a parent is anxious or nervous, a child often will mimic these feelings and behaviors,” she said. “We encourage parents to ask questions and become educated and more comfortable with the process.”

Once you’re comfortable, you can start preparing your child for the big day. Here are some age-appropriate tips to help:

All ages

All ages may have clear liquids (drinks you can see through) up until two hours before surgery. When to withhold food will vary by age.

Under 2 years old

  • Maintain your routine as much as possible the day of surgery. Distract with toys or activities during the time your child is not able to eat.
  • Pack comfort items such as a pacifier, blanket or favorite stuffed animal.
  • If your child has a favorite bottle or sippy cup, bring it along. They may be able to use it after surgery.

2 to 4 years old

  • A day or two before surgery, use simple words to describe what body part the doctor is going to operate on.
  • On the day of surgery, put away food and drinks the child cannot have.
  • Bring favorite items to the hospital for distraction and comfort.
  • Be patient. Some children may act out when tired, hungry and in new environments.

4 to 6 years old

  • Talk to your child about the surgery using simple terms. This will help clear up misconceptions or fears.
  • Schedule a tour of the hospital so your child is familiar with the building before surgery day.
  • On the day of surgery, put away food and drinks the child cannot have.
  • Bring favorite items for distraction and comfort.
  • Have a new, fun activity or game for the morning of surgery.

6 to 11 years old

Pediatric surgery services

Norton Children’s is the destination for pediatric surgical care in Louisville, with convenient access from Southern Indiana.

  • Prepare your child with honest, accurate information. You know best what your child wants to know and how much to tell them.
  • Schedule a tour with the hospital to prepare your child for surgery.
  • Talk about who your child will meet and what their role is in the hospital. Explain they are there to help.
  • Make a coping plan for transition to the operating room and during anesthesia. This may include a distraction item, such as an iPad, book, hand-held video game or talking with a parent. Norton Children’s child life specialists can help develop the plan.
  • Pack distraction items and have your child pick what he or she wants to bring.
  • Assure your child that the hospital staff will protect their privacy, as children start being concerned with body image at this age.

12 to 18 years old

  • Provide your teen with accurate information about surgery and anesthesia. Remember, what they know is what they hear on TV, social media and in the news.
  • Schedule a tour of the hospital to prepare your child for surgery.
  • Have your child pack their own bag for the day of surgery or inpatient stay.
  • Bring distraction items and ways to communicate with friends outside the hospital.