How to Talk to My Child About Surgery

Updated 2/22/23

Helpful tips for parents on how to comfort your baby or talk to your toddler, school-age child or teen about what will be happening during an upcoming surgery and help ease some of your child’s fears or concerns ahead of time.

The idea of your kid having surgery can be a little frightening, but it’s important to remember that your child may also be experiencing these same fears. Whether your kid is 4 months old or 14 years old, it is important to take time before they have surgery to make sure they are comfortable with what will be happening during the procedure.

Parent sits with their child after surgery.

Preparing your child ahead of time for surgery can help:

  • Calm his fears.
  • Make recovery easier and faster.
  • Calm yourself so that you can focus on your child, on what to expect and on how to care for them afterward.

The tips below for each age group can help ease some of those worries and support you when it’s time to comfort your baby or talk to your toddler, preschooler, school-age child or teenager about their upcoming surgery at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

You can help prepare your baby for surgery by keeping their routine as normal as possible. It is common for your baby to cry and for it to be difficult to comfort them during this time. But be patient with your child, and be sure to give them lots of love.

  • Keep your baby’s routine the same as usual the day before surgery.
  • Use a relaxed voice and body language.
  • Bring your baby’s pacifier and a favorite toy or blanket to the hospital. This helps create a more familiar place for your baby.
  • Make sure that you, your baby and your family are well rested.
  • Take care of yourself. Your baby can sense and react to your stress level.

Talk to your child ahead of time

  • Tell your toddler about the surgery one to two days beforehand and your preschooler or school-age child three to four days beforehand. Your child will not have as much time to worry or dream about the surgery this way.
  • Read books about going to the hospital. Young children may be scared when they see the doctor wearing a mask and cap.
    • “A Visit to Sesame Street Hospital” by Deborah Hautzig shows pictures of what the doctors will look like.
    • You can also ask the doctor for a mask and cap that your child can see or play with.
  • Allow your child to act out the surgery on a doll or stuffed animal. Playing with a doctor or nurse kit is a fun way for them to act out their fears.
  • Make sure your child understands that surgery is not a punishment. Help them understand why they need surgery.
  • Preschoolers and school-age children have very active imaginations. Make sure they do not have any wrong ideas about what will happen.
  • Offer praise, positive reinforcement and support.

Choose your words

  • Speak to your child in a way they can understand and be mindful of the words you use. For example:
    • Instead of saying, “The doctor will put you to sleep with some gas,” say, “The doctor will help you fall asleep. You will breathe some sleepy air through a mask. The sleepy air helps you take a special nap, so you do not feel anything while you are sleeping.”
    • Remind your child that this special nap is different than when they fall asleep at night.
    • Instead of using words like hurt or pain, use words like sore or achy.
    • If a medicine will burn, tell your child that it will feel warm or different.
    • If your child may be sore, tell them that they will be able to have medicine to help them feel better.
  • Be honest. Avoid making promises you cannot keep, such as, “I promise it will not hurt.” Being honest helps build trust.
  • For preschoolers and school-age children, explain how the surgery can help. You could say, “After the doctor fixes your leg, you can play outside again.”

On surgery day

  • To help your child feel like they have some control, allow them to choose a favorite stuffed animal, toy or blanket to bring along.
  • Let them know you will wait close by during their surgery and will see them as soon as they get to their room.
  • Be patient and try to remain calm so you can help your child.
  • The following behaviors, which usually improve after the stress of surgery has passed, may be normal during this time:
    • Your child may become uncooperative or throw temper tantrums.
    • Your child may act younger than their age and revert to bed-wetting or thumb-sucking.

Talk to your teen ahead of time

  • Prepare your teen as soon as you make the decision to have surgery. Explain the reason for having surgery.
  • Allow your teen to have as much control as possible. Here are some ways to help them feel in control.
    • Have your teen help with the plans for surgery.
    • Give them choices when possible.
  • Have your teen make a list of questions to ask the doctors and nurses.
  • Talk about fears, and be honest. Teens need honesty to build trust.
  • Let your teen know that there is a doctor whose only job is to make sure they stay asleep during the whole procedure. This doctor is called an anesthesiologist. Also, let your teen know that:
    • They will not feel anything while he is asleep.
    • The doctor will stop giving him the anesthesia (air or medicine that helps him stay asleep) when the surgery is done. After this, they will wake up.
  • Let your teen know that many other people, including those older and younger than them, have had the same type of surgery.
  • Offer praise, positive reinforcement and support.

Choose your words

  • Explain your teen’s surgery in words that they can understand. Have your teen explain back to you what will happen to make sure they understand.
  • Teens may not admit when they don’t understand everything. Use several ways to explain what will happen and why without making your teen feel awkward.

On surgery day

  • Have your teen bring a few comfort items from home, such as handheld video games, their cellphone, books, movies or music.
  • Your teen may go through many mood swings while in the hospital. Be patient and understanding. Your teen may become withdrawn and not want to talk or answer questions. There are times when they may need to be alone.
  • Let your teen know that it is OK to be afraid and cry. They might need to know that you have the same worries they do. Let them know that you are there to support them.
  • Let them know you will be waiting close by during the surgery and will see them as soon as they get back to his room.
  • Help your teen stay connected with friends.
    • Make time for visits or phone calls.
    • Ask friends to send cards or letters during the hospital stay or while they are healing.

If possible, visit the hospital before your child’s surgery. Kids ages 3 and older are allowed to visit with their parents.

  • Our child life specialists offer tours that can help your child learn about the hospital.
  • This can help him get familiar with the sights, sounds and events he might experience on the day of surgery.
  • You and your child will have a chance to ask questions.
  • To arrange a tour:

See Our Pre-Surgery Checklists

It’s important to follow pre-surgery instructions so your child or teen can be as safe as possible during their procedure. Get pre-surgery instructions and tips on preparing for your child’s procedure.

Read Instructions

Your child can sense and may react to your stress level. In order to help your child remain more at ease before, during and after surgery, it’s important for you to make sure you also take care of yourself.

  • Make sure you know about your child’s surgery and know what to expect. This can help reduce your fears about it.
  • Make sure you, your child and your family are well rested.