How to Prepare Your Child for Surgery

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Summer is here! Probably not what you would think of as far as summer plans go, however, if your kiddo needs surgery over the summer… here are some tips and tricks for  you and your little one from a certified child life specialist (CCLS) to help everyone cope!

Surgery can elicit a lot of anxiety, from kiddos and parents alike! As a CCLS, I’ve helped many children and families cope with surgical procedures and as a military spouse, I know that not all military treatment facilities (MTF) are super child friendly. Whether you’re able to go out in town and that hospital has a child life program or scheduled to be seen at an MTF with no child life services; I’m hoping to arm you, the parents, with some helpful and practical information to take with you no matter where you’re stationed! As the parent, you know your kiddos best… you are the expert!

Preparation for surgery will depend on age and interest in knowing more or less about the procedure. Some kiddos really thrive with knowing all the details and others will do better only knowing the bare minimum information. Ask your kiddos what they know about the procedure or having surgery to clear up any misconceptions they may have! Remember to validate your child’s feelings and emotions and let them know it’s completely normal to be nervous and remind them that they are having surgery to help them feel better. If possible, ask hospital staff questions in advance (preferably without your child there) so you know what to expect and can then filter developmentally appropriate information to your child. Ask if the hospital offers a pre-op tour prior to the appointment so you and your child can see what the pre-op rooms look like and (hopefully!) a CCLS can prepare your child for upcoming surgery. Lastly, ask if a parent and/or CCLS can accompany the child to the OR on the day of surgery. A couple of key preparation tips from a CCLS:

• Use a “5 senses approach”. Describe what they will see, smell, hear, feel, etc. For example, let them know there will be bright lights in the OR or that the staff will wear a hat, gown and gloves before accompanying them to the OR.
• Use their age as an indicator for how far in advance to prepare. For example, if your child is 3 years old – prepare them 3 days in advance. If your child is 7 years old, prepare them 7 days in advance.
• Use medical play to prepare your child in the days/weeks before surgery. Prepare your child for anesthesia or “sleepy medicine”, which you can explain is a special medicine that helps them to stay asleep throughout the surgery.
• Let them know that you will be with them the whole time before surgery (in pre-op) and will be there as they wake up once surgery is finished (in PACU).
• Bring your kiddos favorite stuffie, blankie or comfort item and ask to make sure it can accompany them to the OR!
• Often waiting in pre-op is the most difficult time as your child hasn’t been able to eat or drink for a period of time and you are all just waiting. Bring some toys, small activities or an ipad/phone to watch their favorite shows, etc. to keep busy and offer normalization opportunities for play!

Remember, you know your child best and you are their advocate. You got this!

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Lisa McWhorter
Lisa McWhorter, MS, CCLS, CPMT Lisa is a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS), active duty military spouse and mom of three busy boys. Lisa has been a CCLS for 14 years and counting and has worked in several different settings ranging from hospice to rehab to non profits as she and her family have moved up and down the east coast and overseas twice due to military orders! Lisa is passionate about bridging the gap between civilian and military worlds by bringing child life services and resources to the military connected community. Lisa is currently living overseas and loves anything outdoors (especially the beach), spending time with friends and family, cooking and traveling.

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