Preparing your child for surgery

February 9, 2024 Swedish Pediatrics Team


In this article:

  • Child life specialists help children prepare for surgery, providing detailed information about what to expect and accompanying them on surgery day.

  • Parents should feel comfortable asking their child’s surgeon about the risks associated with the surgery and expect a transparent conversation about all the available treatment options.

  • Many pediatric surgeries at Swedish use multimodal pain control, avoiding the need for narcotic medications.

Find support to prepare your child for pediatric surgery

When you get the news that your child needs surgery, it’s natural to feel concerned. Your child may be scared, and you may have a hard time finding the right words to explain surgery to your child.

A child’s surgery presents a distinct set of physical and emotional challenges for children and their families. To find out how parents can help their children feel as confident as possible about their surgery and recovery, we spoke with Rob Weinsheimer, M.D., director of Swedish Pediatric Surgical Services and Alexa Campbell, MS, CCLS, a certified child life specialist at Swedish First Hill. Here’s how they recommend parents prepare.

Talk to a child life specialist

Child life specialists like Campbell help children and families navigate medical experiences and reduce trauma by ensuring they feel well-informed, comfortable and secure throughout their hospital visit.

“My goal is to connect with every family and child scheduled for a surgical procedure and encourage them to ask questions,” says Campbell.

Surgery day can be long, and there is often a lot of waiting involved. Patients may need to go without eating before their procedure or have to stay overnight at the hospital.

To help patients prepare for these situations, Campbell provides a detailed walkthrough of what to expect on the day of surgery, including an introduction to the medical equipment they will encounter. On the day of surgery, she frequently accompanies patients to the operating room as they fall asleep with their parents nearby.

Help your child prepare with age-appropriate resources

Children’s fears about surgery change with age — toddlers have different worries than school-age children, who have different concerns than teens. Regardless of a child’s age, Campbell says it’s important to follow their lead and let them guide the conversations about their surgery.

“Most children’s questions about surgery are very straightforward; they are concerned about what the surgery will feel like and when they will be able to eat again,” Campbell says. “A big worry for a lot of kids is that they are going to wake up in the middle of surgery, and many are afraid to ask about it.”

Campbell says that age-appropriate resources can be a big help as children and teens prepare for surgery. There are books, TV shows and online videos that can help parents explain surgery and spark helpful conversations.

“It is great when a family can all sit down and watch something together,” she says. “An episode like Daniel Goes to the Hospital from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood can encourage children to express their emotions and talk about what they fear.”

To help pediatric patients prepare for surgery at Swedish, Campbell created an interactive book titled, "My Surgery Day at Swedish First Hill." Available to all families of pediatric surgery patients, it’s a comprehensive guide to the surgery experience.

Make sure you know the risks

Every procedure has a spectrum of associated risks, and Dr. Weinsheimer emphasizes that your surgeon should be able to explain them to you transparently. They should also be able to explain the risks of any non-surgical options that are on the table.

“If we are recommending surgery for your child, it is because we believe it is the safest and least risky option for treating your child’s condition — that is why we are offering it,” says Dr. Weinsheimer. “But discussing all options is an important part of the decision-making process when it comes to your child’s health.”

Ask what to expect during recovery

Depending on the nature of the surgery, patients may be able to go home the same day. Still, there are procedures that may require a longer recovery period and a hospital stay for some young patients.

“Make sure that you as a parent have a good understanding of what the recovery process will look like,” says Dr. Weinsheimer. “If the post-operative plan doesn’t seem clear, don’t hesitate to ask for more clarity. Not only do you want to know how long recovery will take, make sure you know what milestones and red flags to look for, what to do, and who to contact if something isn’t going as expected.”

At Swedish, the pediatric surgery team has a single, direct phone number that parents can use 24 hours a day to talk to a provider post-surgery.

“Parents also need to take care of themselves so that they can effectively support their child throughout the recovery period,” adds Dr. Weinsheimer. “Feeling confident about what to expect during recovery can help them plan for how to care for themselves, too.”

Prepare for your child’s discomfort after surgery

Pain management is a critical aspect after surgery for pediatric patients. Depending on the procedure, a patient may only experience soreness at the incision site for a few days. More complicated procedures could result in pain that lasts a week or more.

Dr. Weinsheimer says parents should ask their child’s provider to explain what kind of pain their child might experience and how it might limit their activity.

“Having a clear strategy around pain control is important, and that includes a realistic understanding of what your child can expect to feel,” he says. “For a laparoscopic surgery with small incisions, it is common to feel sore for a few days, but your child may be able to walk around and be active with the help of acetaminophen or ibuprofen.”

“It is also possible that a pediatric surgery patient might wake up surprised and scared when they realize that they do feel their incisions,” he adds. “It is important to have realistic expectations and a solid plan for how to use the various pain medicines available to help make your child comfortable.”

Know your child’s options for pain management

Dr. Weinsheimer says that for most surgeries performed at Swedish, pediatric patients don’t need any narcotic pain relief after leaving the hospital. If medication is needed, the surgical team works with families to help them track their pain medication schedules. The team provides written instructions and reviews them with families before they are discharged.

“We have found that the care experience overall is so much better without narcotics,” he says. “Instead, we use multimodal pain control, which includes starting some medicines like acetaminophen or ibuprofen before surgery, a local numbing medicine at the site of the incision, a local anesthetic, and then continuing on acetaminophen, ibuprofen or another non-steroidal medication at regular intervals post-surgery.”

Learn more and find a pediatrician

If you have questions about your child’s health, or to make an appointment with one of our pediatric practitioners, contact Swedish Pediatrics. We have more than 20 pediatric primary care locations for your convenience.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Contact Swedish Primary Care to schedule an appointment with a primary care provider. You can also connect virtually with your provider to review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. And with Swedish ExpressCare Virtual you can receive treatment in minutes for common conditions such as colds, flu, urinary tract infections and more. You can use our provider directory to find a specialist or primary care physician near you.

Visit our website to learn more about pediatric surgery services at Swedish.

Related resources

How pediatric physical therapists design care for kids

Comforting your child during a medical procedure

Helping kids face change and uncertainty

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether it relates to vaccinations, allergies, nutrition or sleep, The Swedish Pediatrics Team is committed to helping you find resources to ensure your littles grow up healthy and strong. Our clinical experts offer tips, tricks and clinical advice to help you take care of your children.

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