Children’s National Health System understands that you may be unsure about what to tell your child about medical treatment and surgery. Here are some age-appropriate guidelines from our Child Life Specialists to help prepare both you and your child.
Speak With Your Child’s Doctor
Find out from your child’s doctor what his or her next appointment involves and get as much information as possible. You may have questions such as: will my child receive a shot, will there be blood work and what medical equipment will be used?
Timing is Everything
Give your child at least one or two days’ notice before a doctor’s appointment. Too much advanced warning may lead the child to worry and focus on the event. It’s also helpful to provide opportunities, when age appropriate, for your child to play doctor with their stuffed animals or dolls, using toy medical instruments. Medical play helps your child become familiar and comfortable with the equipment that will be used during their visit.
Share Information With Your Child
When sharing information with your child, make sure that you understand the procedure so that you can easily and confidently answer any questions your child may have. Be truthful to your child and do not lie, but make sure they have the information they need. It’s also helpful to rehearse the visit with your child and take them through what he or she will think, feel or see.
Use Language Your Child Can Understand
Make sure you carefully choose what language you use to explain a procedure to a child. Words like “shot” can immediately put a child into a panic, so try to soften the expectations of a vaccination by explaining that he or she may experience a “pinch” or an “ouchie” at this visit. Remind the child that the treatment will make them healthier.
Distract Your Child
For all ages, it’s important to bring comfort items to a visit. For infants, caregivers provide comfort, but for toddlers and preschoolers, let the child help choose toys, books or blankets that they want to bring to the visit. These items can be used to pass the time in the waiting room and also can be used to distract a child during a procedure.
Caregivers know their children best, so if you have specific concerns about your child’s visit, do not hesitate to call your child’s doctor prior to the visit.
How to Help Your Child Prepare for Surgery
Infants (0 to 12 months old)
Be prepared. If you are prepared, you will be more relaxed around your child. Your baby will sense if you are frightened or stressed.
Familiar people and objects are important to infants. Bring a favorite blanket, toy or pacifier to the hospital. Be patient with your baby. It is normal for infants to be fussy. Plan to distract, rock, walk and comfort your baby during this time. After surgery, infants are more likely to drink from a familiar bottle nipple or sippy cup, so it can be helpful to bring an empty bottle or cup for use after surgery. It is important to try to keep routines as normal as possible.
Toddlers (1 to 3 years old)
Begin preparing your toddler a day before surgery. Use simple words a small child would understand. Read books about going to the hospital. Engage your child in play with a toy medical kit to help with expression of feelings. Toddlers are learning to be independent and like to make choices. Offer only realistic choices: Which stuffed animal would you like to take with you? Which T-shirt would you like to wear to the hospital? Be patient with your toddler. It is normal for your toddler to be fussy. Provide a lot of comfort and let your toddler know that you will be nearby.
During exams at the hospital, explain what the doctors or nurses will do, before they touch your child. Toddlers learn by watching, so you may let the nurse listen to your heart first. This helps make the surgery exam as non-threatening as possible.
Preschoolers (3 to 5 years old)
Prepare your preschooler three days in advance. Talk to your child about the hospital. Explain that the hospital is a safe place, where many kids come to see doctors. Be honest, giving simple explanations and answers to your child’s questions without too many details. Help your child understand that he or she did not do anything to cause the surgery, procedure or hospitalization. Be careful not to force a discussion about the upcoming event if your child does not seem ready. Here are language suggestions to use with your child:
- Stretcher: “Bed with wheels”
- Blood pressure cuff: “Arm hug”
- Anesthesia: “Sleepy air”
- Induction room: “Sleepy air room”
- Recovery room: “Wake up room”
What to Tell Siblings
Remember that other children in the family may have questions too. Use simple, honest language that they can understand to talk about the surgery. Let your children know that all of their feelings are okay and it is important to talk about them. As much as possible, allow siblings to be involved in their brother or sister’s care. Siblings feel included when they are assigned tasks that are helpful to the family. Try to keep family routines as normal as possible.
Additional Support for Families
Children’s Child Life Specialists are available for consultations and visits. Contact the Child Life Services program at 202-476-3070. There also is a pre-surgical tour for kids. For tips on how to prepare your child for surgery, visit Having Surgery.