Preparing for Your Child's Surgery

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Children cope better with surgery and recover faster when their families are informed and prepared. Providing care for thousands of children at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, we see proof of that every day.

It is normal for parents to feel anxious about an upcoming surgery or procedure. You are not alone in your worry. Knowledge — for both parents and children — can help relieve this anxiety.

The Pediatric Perioperative Surgical Home (PPSH) is here to guide you through each surgical step and help you and your child feel prepared. Through the nationally recognized Chase Child Life Program, we have Child Life Specialists available for children and families when they come for surgery or a procedure requiring anesthesia.

Talking to Your Child About Surgery

Parents want to protect their children. However, being secretive about an upcoming surgery can cause more anxiety for a child. Here are a few tips from our Child Life Specialists:

  • Appear confident. Your child looks to you to know how to feel. If your face is pinched in worry, he/she will worry. It’s easy to let our own fear induce fear in our children. Take deep breaths and arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can before you talk to your child.
  • Be truthful. It is important to be honest. If you lie to a child about coming to the hospital, it can create mistrust. Offer simple explanations (especially for younger children) about procedures and anesthesia, such as, “The doctors will help you sleep with medicine.”
  • Follow your child’s lead. Do not force the discussion if your child is resistant. However, be ready to talk about it if they suddenly bring it up, perhaps while playing or riding in the car. You know your child best and how he/she thinks.
  • Ask your child questions. Asking your child questions is a good way to find out how you can help him/her. Taking into account your child’s age, temperament and any previous experience with surgery or hospitals, you might ask questions such as:
    • Are you nervous about anything?
    • Do you have questions about who will be with you at the hospital or how long you will stay there?
    • Is there a part you are worried about? Could we do something to make it easier?
    • Is there anything you are looking forward to about being in the hospital?
  • Talk to older children sooner rather than later. The older children are, the more time they need to process. Start talking to teenagers a few weeks before the surgery. For preschoolers, wait until a few days before.
image of surgery checklist

To help prepare your child, he or she can fill out our pre-surgery checklist.

Age-Appropriate Tips to Prepare Your Child

Children process information differently at different developmental stages. A 4-year-old child has different concerns than a teenager does. Going to the hospital also affects each age group differently. For infants and toddlers, the disruption in routine may be distressing. Teenagers may be upset about the lack of privacy.

Read more of our age-appropriate surgery preparation tips to help your child cope with an upcoming surgery or procedure.

How Do I Prepare My Child’s Siblings?

Surgery is challenging for the entire family. It can affect siblings’ routines and how available you are for them. It is not uncommon for siblings to have some regression or begin acting out to get attention when their brother or sister is in the hospital. Child Life Specialists are also available through our Chase Child Life Program to support siblings.

Read our tips for preparing siblings to help your child’s brothers and/or sisters cope with the surgery.

What if My Child Has Special Needs?

At UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, we see many children who have special needs. For a special needs child, hospitalization and procedures can be more challenging.

We work closely with families of special needs children, whether you are coming for a short procedure or a surgery. We know that the hospital environment can be very stressful for your child. We will do everything we can to accommodate you. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • As a parent, you are the biggest asset in helping us support your child. You are the expert in your child, and we respect that.
  • Our Child Life Specialist may contact you prior to your procedure to gather information about how you and your child can be best supported. Your input is critical.

To contact a Child Life Specialist, please email [email protected]

What to Read Next

Learn about what to do the day before your child’s surgery.