Preparing the Preschooler for Surgery
What part about surgery is most stressful for a preschool child?
Preschool-aged children can certainly benefit from preoperative planning, education,
and explanations. This preparation should take place several days before the procedure,
to give your preschool child time to prepare. Recognizing what is stressful to your
preschool child while in the hospital can guide you in preparing him or her for the
surgical experience. Common stressors and fears in the hospital may include the following:
Fear of being away from family and home, or of being left alone
Thinking he or she is in the hospital because he or she is in trouble or being punished
Fear of having a part of the body damaged
Fear of needles and shots
Fear of waking up during surgery
Fear of pain (or the possibility of pain)
Fear of the dark
How do I prepare my preschool child for surgery?
One of the major fears preschoolers have is fear of the unknown. Tell your child about
the surgery several days before the procedure and perhaps even visit the hospital
for a tour. Many hospitals will allow you and your child to visit before surgery.
This can help your child see the sights, sounds, and events he or she will experience
the day of surgery. It can help your child learn about the hospital, and it gives
him or her time to talk about concerns and questions he or she may have. Contact the
hospital's child life department for this service.
Tell the truth in simple terms, and answer all of your child's questions, for example,
"Yes, it will hurt, but it will not last long."
Make sure your child knows why he or she is going to have surgery. It is not uncommon
for this age group to have misconceptions about hospitalization. Often, children think
they have done something wrong or that needles are given to kids who are "bad."
Dramatic play is a big part of a preschooler's life. Using pictures, stuffed animals,
or toys to help your child understand is better than simply telling him or her what
will happen. Illustrate the situation clearly for your child. Ask a child life specialist
to help explain what will happen, and why, in terms your child can understand. Also
discuss therapeutic play activities, such as playing "hospital" with your child at
home before he or she is admitted for the procedure.
Give very simple explanations, and be careful of the words that you use. For example,
say, "The healthcare provider is going to fix your arm." Do not say, "The healthcare
provider is going to make a cut on your arm." If you describe anesthesia as "being
put to sleep," your preschooler may think of a family pet that died and wonder if
he or she will die, too. A better way to phrase it might be: "A healthcare provider
will help you sleep (a different kind of sleep than how you sleep at night) during
the operation, and he or she will wake you up after it is over."
Your child may enjoy reading books about the hospital with the family.
Allow your child to help pack his or her own suitcase. Bringing a favorite security
item, pictures of family and pets, and a special toy can be very comforting.
Explain the benefits of the surgery in terms your child can understand. For example,
"After the healthcare provider fixes your arm, you can play ___."
Learn as much as you can about your child's surgery. Children can tell when their
parents are worried. The more you know, the better you will feel and the more you
can help explain things to your child.
Make sure to stay with your child as much as possible to provide comfort and security.
Be patient with your child. It is normal for him or her to require more attention.
Your child may have temper tantrums or be uncooperative. It is not unusual for your
child to return to bedwetting or thumb-sucking. The regressive behavior will usually
improve after the stress of the procedure has passed.
Remember, too, to take care of yourself. Simplify your life during this time and do
not be afraid to ask for help from family and friends. Remaining positive and nonstressed
can help reduce your child's anxiety.
Helpful books for you and your child
Anne Civardi. 2005. Going to the Hospital(First Experiences). Usborne Publishing Ltd. (Ages 3 and up)
Fred Rogers. 1997. Going to the Hospital. Penguin Young Readers Group. (Ages 2 to 6)
Deborah Hautzig. 1985. A Visit to the Sesame Street Hospital. Random House for Young Readers. (Ages 4 and up)
Richard Scarry. 1995. A Big Operation (The Busy World of Richard Scarry). Aladdin Paperback.
Debbie Duncan. 1995. When Molly Was in the Hospital: A Book for Brothers and Sisters of Hospitalized Children. Rayve Productions, Incorporated. (Ages 3 and up)
Paulette Bourgeois. 2011. Franklin Goes to the Hospital. Kids Can Press. (Ages 3 to 8)
Virginia Dooley. 1996. Tubes in My Ears: My Trip to the Hospital. Mondo Publishing. (Ages 4 to 7)
Juliana Lee Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff. 2004. Good-Bye Tonsils! Puffin Books. (Ages 4 to 8)
Norman Bridwell. 2000. Clifford Visits the Hospital. Scholastic Incorporated. (Ages 4 to 8)
Margret Rey, H.A. Ray. 2010. Curious George Goes to the Hospital. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (Ages 4 to 7)
Barbara Taylor Cork. 2002. Katie Goes to the Hospital. Brighter Child. (Ages 5 to 8)
Joanna Cole. 1990. The Magic School Bus: Inside the Human Body. Scholastic, Incorporated. (Ages 4 to 8)