Surgical strike

By: Apr 18, 2011
children and surgery, tips if your child needs surgery, preparing for your child's trip to the hospital

How to prepare for your child's hospital stay

Someday, your child may need surgery. And whether it's an elective procedure, such as ear tubes to combat recurring ear infections, or a mad dash to the ER after a playground mishap, there are a few things you should know about that first trip to the hospital.

Fear factor

"Lack of control and fear of the unknown are the scariest things children face when they go to the hospital," says Shaindy Alexander, a certified child life specialist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. This is why it's important to learn as much as possible about your child's procedure – the more you know, the calmer you'll be and the better able to reassure him.

"Ask questions, then be his translator," says Alexander. "Parents sometimes have a hard time explaining things to their children because they're afraid of frightening them. Some will even lie about what's going to happen when the most important thing is to be honest and to explain things in an age-nappropriate language."

For example, anticipate what your child might think if you said something like, "the doctor is going to put you to sleep," she says. "Well, the family cat was 'put to sleep' and never came back. Instead, tell him the doctor will give him sleep medicine through a mask–and that it will be a different sleep than at night because he won't hear or feel anything until the doctor is ready to wake him."

Pre-op prep

When it comes to planning for a scheduled procedure, Alexander recommends:

  • Involving children in the planning a few days before – unless you have a really anxious child. "In that case, tell him just one day before," she says. "It's enough time for him to process and ask questions and only one night of potentially lost sleep."
  • Getting a book, such as Franklin Goes to the Hospital, to help explain what will happen.
  • Talking about things your child has control over. Try asking things like: "Do you want to bring your stuffed doggie, or your teddy?" This gives him some control and lets him be a part of the plan, she says.
  • Buying a toy medical kit and playing through the procedure to make it familiar.
  • Playing out what will happen on a doll or stuffed toy.

If your child's surgery wasn't scheduled, you can still be his advocate and make the experience less frightening. "For instance, if the doctor is coming at him with a stethoscope, insist he be allowed to touch it," she says. You can even get the doctor to listen to your heartbeat first.

And regardless of whether or not your child's surgery was planned, ask for a child life specialist – they can make the experience easier for your entire family, both before and after the surgery.

What to bring for a prolonged hospital stay

"Normalize your child's environment with things from home," says Alexander. Here are five things she recommends:

  1. Comfort items, such as a stuffed toy, blanket or pillow.
  2. Distractions: Gameboy, DVD, music, favourite books or art materials.
  3. Photos of pets and family members.
  4. Opportunities for play, such as puppets or a favourite toy or game.
  5. Siblings–often a visit from a brother or sister is the best distraction of all.