Preparing Your Child for Surgery

Patient and Family Guide

Preparing Your Child for Surgery

Child Life therapists working in the surgical services unit at American Family Children's Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, offers these tips for parents with children who will be undergoing surgery.

The surgical pavilion is a state-of-the-art facility with the latest in operating room design and technology, and the entire process leading to surgery is intended to help alleviate some of the stress for patients.

Video: What to Expect

Children Birth to 2 Years Old

  • Maintain your routine as much as possible the day of surgery. For toddlers, distract with toys or activities during the time they are not able to eat
  • Pack comfort items such as a pacifier, blanket, stuffed animal or favorite toy.
  • If your child is particular to a certain bottle or sippy cup, bring it along, as your child may be able to use it after surgery.

Children 2 to 4 Years Old

  • One or two days before surgery, use simple words to describe what the doctor is going to do surgery on.
  • On the day of surgery, keep food and drink out of sight.
  • Bring favorite items for distraction and comfort.
  • Be patient with your child. Some children may regress or “act out” when tired, hungry and in unfamiliar environments.

Children 4 to 6 Years Old

  • Talk to your child using simple terms. This will help clear misconceptions or fears.
  • Schedule a tour with Child Life to prepare your child for surgery.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to express himself or herself. Use doctors kits or our surgical coloring book (pdf)
  • On the day of surgery, keep food and drink out of sight.
  • Bring favorite items for distraction and comfort.
  • Have a new, fun activity or game for the morning of surgery.
Child Life therapists can help you prepare your child for surgery.

Children 6 to 11 Years Old

  • Prepare your child with honest, accurate information. You know your child best, and what they want to know and how much to tell them.
  • Schedule a tour with Child Life to prepare your child for surgery and check out our videos.
  • Talk about who your child will meet and what their role is in the hospital.
  • Clear any misconceptions they may have with medical staff.
  • Pack distraction items and have your child pick what he or she wants to bring.
  • Assure your child we will protect their privacy, as children are often concerned with body image at this age.
  • If an inpatient stay is anticipated, maintain connection with school and friends through the Hospital School or social media.
  • Make a coping plan with Child Life specialists for transition to the operating room and during anesthesia induction. This may include a distraction item (I-Pod/tablet, DVD, book, hand-held video game, and/or talking with parent).

Children 12 to 18 Years Old

  • Provide your teen with concrete accurate information about surgery and anesthesia. Remember, what they know is what they hear on TV, social media and in the news
  • Have your child pack their own bag for the day of surgery or inpatient stay.
  • Bring distraction items and ways to communicate with peers (phones or tablets)
  • Talk about who your child will meet and what their role is in the hospital. 
  • Schedule a tour with Child Life to prepare your child for surgery and check out our videos