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Ask the Experts: How to prepare your child for surgery

Preparing your child for surgery is one parenting challenge many hope to never face. But the situation can and often does arise. Thanks to the Child Life specialists at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, preparing for surgery as a family can be manageable and even educational.

Certified Child Life Specialists are specially trained to understand how the youngest members of a family deal with illness and injury. They are experts at helping children prepare for their procedures and coping before, during and afterwards.

Jessica Nolte, Child Life Specialist at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, explains that age-appropriate communication is key. “You’re having surgery, and the doctor is going to fix your leg,” Nolte says she might tell a preschooler with a broken leg. “You’re going to wear a mask that gives sleepy air and helps you take a special nap. Doctor will fix your leg, and when you wake up, mom and dad will be right there.”

She tells children they will go for a ride on a bed with wheels into the operating room where they will get to wear the mask and choose a smell they picked (at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, patients can choose scents like bubblegum and strawberry in their mask and chocolate anesthesia gas). When preparing them for an IV, she describes it as a special straw that goes into their hand or arm to give them the medicine they need. She explains that the “straw” has to be guided in with a poke, and that the straw will come out before the child leaves the hospital.

For older children and teens, it’s appropriate to use terms like anesthesia and surgery. One concern older kids often have is the worry that they will wake up during anesthesia, but Nolte assures them that a specially trained pediatric anesthesiologist will be present throughout the surgery to ensure they have just the right amount to keep them asleep throughout.

Although it is crucial that parents are honest with their children, wording is important, Nolte says. Rather than saying, “the doctor will put you to sleep,” explain that the doctor will “help you sleep.” Don’t refer to an IV as a shot. Avoid words like “hurt” and “pain” and instead say “sore,” “achy” or “pinch.” Never lie to a child headed to the hospital that they are going anywhere else.

Children also often ask why they can’t eat for so long before surgery. Nolte explains that for the “sleepy medicine” to work, tummies have to be empty. If there’s food in there, that upsets the tummy. As an incentive, she also lets the kids in on a secret—that St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital has a slushy machine that they can make a beeline for once they’ve come out.

More surgery prep tips for families

  • Help your child choose a comfort item to bring such as a doll, stuffed animal or blanket. Nolte has seen children bring in iPads, toys or even pictures of a parent or a friend to help them feel calm.
  • Call your hospital and see if you can speak to a Child Life Specialist ahead of time. These experts use praise, positive reinforcement and supportive conversations to help children cope with procedures.
  • Use toys to prepare children for what will happen at the hospital. A doctor kit is an excellent tool, and a doll or stuffed animal can serve as a helpful prop.
  • Read books. Nolte’s go-to is “Bastian’s Surgery” by Sofie Berga. Other suggestions are “Franklin Goes to the Hospital” by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark and “The Berenstain Bears: Hospital Friends” by Mike Berenstain.
  • If possible, familiarize your child with the hospital ahead of time, either through videos on the hospital’s website or by arranging a tour of the hospital before the procedure. During pre-surgery tours at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, Nolte gives children a preview through iPad slide shows and medical play with dolls. (Parents of children ages 4-11 can sign up for a tour by emailing SJCHPediPreopTours@baycare.org.)
  • Bring food and entertainment for yourself! Parents often end up inadvertently fasting right along with their children for an operation. Pack a snack or money for the cafeteria or vending machines to sustain yourself while you wait.
  • Write down questions ahead of time. There is a short window before the surgery when the doctor will meet with you and explain the procedure and after to let you know how things went. Keep your questions handy because it is easy to forget in the emotion of the moment.
  • And most importantly: Stay calm. Children take their cues about how to feel by watching their parents. “Remember the way that parents are coping will affect the way the child is coping,” says Nolte.

*Presented by BayCare | Originally published in the March 2022 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.

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