Does your child need surgery? If so, you know how daunting this can feel. Certainly, you worry about your child’s health and the surgical outcome. But you may also feel overwhelmed by the thought of caring for your child after surgery. Unsurprisingly, pediatric surgery can be a challenging journey. However, preparing for your child’s surgery can help you throughout the entire journey. You can help your child recover as quickly and as easily as possible and help him/her have the best outcome possible.
A few clarification notes:
In this post, “pediatric surgery” refers to any medical procedure performed on an infant or child. These surgeries can range from routine tonsillectomies to complex organ transplants.
Additionally, the term “doctors” refers to medical providers in general, including nurses and nurse practitioners.
Children need support during this process.
Family is the backbone for the recovery of a child. Depending on your child’s age and the circumstances, your child may feel frightened in the days leading up to the surgery. Additionally, your child may face a difficult recovery during which he/she needs your support and care.
Staying calm and providing support can reduce your child’s fears and anxieties and help him/her mentally prepare for and recover from a surgical procedure.
Throughout this journey, you will undoubtedly focus your time and energy on your child who needs surgery. However, siblings might feel stressed and anxious when their brother/sister undergoes surgery. Therefore, pay attention to them and address their concerns. Additionally, as appropriate, include siblings in supporting the recovery of their brother/sister.
Preparing for your child’s surgery.
To prepare for your child’s surgery, consider these steps:
1. Communicate openly with the doctor(s).
Communicate with the pediatrician and/or surgeon to understand what lies ahead. Open and honest conversation is a must. Share your concerns about your child’s surgery and discuss any special needs (emotional and/or physical) that could impact surgery or recovery.
Ask the surgeon these questions:
- What procedure is recommended and why?
- How long will the surgery take?
- What are the expected outcomes?
- For similar procedures, what’s your success rate?
- What are all the possible risks and complications for my child’s situation? Do the risks decrease with a less invasive option?
- Will general anesthesia be needed?
- What if we just wait and see what happens without surgery?
- Where will the surgery take place?
- Is the hospital accredited by the Joint Commission? (Look up your hospital here.)
- How often do surgeons at this hospital perform the procedure my child will have?
- What steps should I take in the days or weeks before surgery to prepare my child?
- How can I explain this surgery to my child?
- Does the hospital enforce the use of surgical checklists?
- What hand hygiene and other infection control programs are in place?
- How does the hospital minimize the risk of hospital acquired infections, such as sepsis and MRSA?
- What are the infection rates for this procedure for you and for this hospital/surgical center?
- What will the recovery period look like? How bad will the pain be? How many weeks or months before my child fully recovers?
- Where will my child recover? If my child must stay in the hospital, how long will he/she need to stay?
- Will we need special equipment in our home? If so, how will we learn how to use it?
- What kinds of medications, including pain medications, will my child need? For how long?
- Will he/she need physical or occupational therapy? How often and for how long?
- How much school will my child miss?
- When can he/she resume normal activities? Strenuous activities?
Additionally, to minimize your child’s stress, ask the doctor if you can stay with your child until they fall asleep before surgery. And ask about visiting your child soon after the procedure – preferably before they wake from anesthesia.
For a complete list of questions, read Questions to Ask Before Surgery.
2. Explain the surgery to your child.
While preparing for your child’s surgery, you may wonder how much to tell your child about his/her upcoming surgery. Unsurprisingly, your child’s personality, language development, and cognitive skills will impact his/her ability to understand what lies ahead.
Provide an honest explanation of what’s going to happen. And let your child ask as many questions as they need. Certainly, you should use your judgement when deciding how and what to share.
You can use the following age-related guidelines from Boston Children’s Hospital to plan your conversations. However, every child is different, so these guidelines may not describe your child exactly.
Newborn to 2 years old.
Very young children cannot understand the concept of surgeries and all that is involved. Therefore, you should focus on preparing yourself for the hospital. If you feel at ease, your child will usually sense this and react similarly.
2 to 3 years old.
Children this age cannot understand time in the same way as older children and adults. Therefore, consider telling your child about his or her surgery one or two days before going to the hospital.
3 to 6 years old.
At these ages, it’s hard for children to understand why they need surgery and may even worry they have done something wrong. Reassure your child that the surgery is about getting something fixed and is not a punishment. If your child is 3 or 4, consider telling him/her one to two days before going to the hospital. If your child is 5 or 6, consider telling him/her three to five days ahead of time.
7 to 11 years old.
Children this age can understand the reason for a procedure and/or hospital stay. You may want to tell your child about his/her surgery a week before going to the hospital. This will give your child plenty of time to ask questions and to talk about his/her concerns.
12 to adult years.
At this age, it’s best to include children in planning for the surgery from the beginning. Encourage your child to ask questions and to share his/her worries about the hospital. You may want to ask your child how you can help him/her through the hospital stay or surgery.
Help your child cope with pre-surgery anxiety.
If your child feels very anxious about surgery, simple relaxation exercises such as deep breathing or meditating may reduce anxiety levels.
Additionally, there are books you can share with your child to help him/her understand what lies ahead and hopefully reduce anxiety. Looking for an appropriate book? Visit Boston Children’s Hospital list of their favorite books.
3. Follow the preoperative guidelines.
Importantly, well before your child’s surgery, make sure you have clear instructions about necessary preparations. And then follow your doctor’s preoperative guidelines carefully to avoid complications.
If you expect that an instruction in the guidelines could pose a problem, tell the doctor right away. For instance, if your child takes medication every morning, but the instructions say no liquids after midnight, ask the doctor for guidance.
Caring for your child in the hospital after surgery.
Depending on the type of procedure, as well as your child’s health and age, your child may need to stay in the hospital for one or more nights after the surgery.
If you expect your child to stay in the hospital after surgery, make the stay easier by packing his/her favorite pajamas, toys, games, or stuffed animals. Also, if your child needs special equipment, such as walkers or braces, bring them along.
While your child is hospitalized, consider the following:
1. Stay with your child as much as possible.
Although all hospitalized patients benefit from having a loved one present, for children it is essential. Therefore, you (or your spouse) should stay with your child whenever possible. Fortunately, many pediatric hospitals have special chairs or portable beds for parents.
Importantly, studies show that visits by family (or other essential caregivers) are associated with benefits to patient care including improved safety, enhanced communication, and improved outcomes. Family and essential caregivers also play important roles by helping with feeding, mobility, hygiene, and emotional support.
Additionally, researchers have found that visitors can reduce the risk of patient harm. For instance, visitors can alert staff to deteriorating conditions, help prevent falls, identify medication errors, prevent allergic reactions, and improve the rapid response of staff in emergencies.
What kind of help can you provide in the hospital?
There are many kinds of help you can provide, including:
- Eliminating loneliness and the fear of being alone in the hospital.
- Reducing the stress associated with a hospital stay.
- Participating in conversations with the medical team.
- Reducing the risk of infections (for more details, read How to Protect Yourself from Hospital Infections).
- Reducing the risk of medical errors and mishaps.
- Notifying staff about changes in your child’s condition.
- Listening for bedside alarms and notifying staff if no help arrives.
- Keeping your child comfortable and entertained.
For more details, read 6 Important Reasons to Visit a Loved One in the Hospital.
2. Pay attention to pain levels.
Undergoing some pain is inevitable after any surgery. Importantly, stay aware of any pain that your child experiences after the surgery. Notify the medical team if you notice any unusual pain.
3. Make sure your child eats well.
Proper nutrition will hasten the healing process. Additionally, keeping your child hydrated will help his/her body make up for any loss of blood and fluids. If your child will not eat the food provided at the hospital, consider bringing in food. But first ask your medical team about any dietary restrictions.
4. Help with your child’s mobility.
Immobility after surgery can lead to serious health issues including pneumonia, blood clots, and pressure ulcers. The medical team might recommend regular walks or some gentle exercises. After your child’s surgery, encouraging movements will promote recovery and reduce the risk of complications.
Transitioning to home care.
Depending on the nature of your child’s surgery, your child may not stay in the hospital overnight. Instead, the doctor may send your child home to recover as soon as he/she is awake and stable.
Whether your child comes home soon after surgery, or comes home after a hospital stay, you can help them recover by taking the following steps:
1. Follow discharge instructions.
The medical team will send you home with a series of discharge instructions. Make sure you understand:
- Any possible complications that might arise days after the surgery.
- Whom to call if the child develops complications.
- Medications required, including over-the-counter medications.
- Any medical treatments you need to perform on your own, such as dressing changes or breathing exercises.
- What follow-up appointments are needed.
To help your child recover as easily as possible, follow every instruction provided.
For more information, read Tips for Hospital Discharges, and Majority of Patients Don’t Understand Discharge Instructions.
2. Follow the doctor’s orders for medication.
Proper and timely medication is essential for recovery. Your child’s doctor may provide you with one or more prescriptions. Carefully follow the doctor’s instructions on when and how to take each medication.
For more tips, read 10 Tips for Avoiding Medication Issues After a Hospital Stay.
3. Monitor your child’s sleep.
Monitor your child’s sleep to make sure he/she is sleeping enough. Getting proper sleep can help your child recover. You should also encourage frequent periods of rest, including naps. However, beware that your child may have an unusual sleeping pattern after surgery.
4. Create a restful environment.
Try to create a restful environment for your child to help your child recover. Engage them in quiet activities like reading or watching movies. And avoid too many visitors which can feel overwhelming.
5. Watch out for signs of weakness or dizziness.
Your child’s surgery and pain medications can leave your child weak and unsteady. Therefore, watch your child closely, providing support while he/she walks or crawls.
6. Provide proper nutrition.
Right after your child’s surgery, his/her stomach may be upset, leading to nausea and vomiting. It’s important to provide fluids, even if eating is impossible. When your child is ready to eat, start with light meals such as soup or toast. Add more food as your child’s stomach becomes settled.
7. Watch for changes in your child’s behavior.
After your child’s surgery, your child may develop new fears and/or unusual behaviors. For instance, you may notice any of these changes:
- Increased clinginess.
- Changes in sleeping and/or eating patterns.
- New fears, such as being afraid to sleep in the dark or alone.
- Acting younger.
Although these changes can cause worry, rest assured these behaviors are most likely temporary. Your child should return to his/her normal self in a few weeks or months. Importantly, be patient with your child during this time. If the unusual behavior persists for months, talk to the doctor.
8. Encourage physical activity – as appropriate.
Your child’s surgery may make it difficult for him/her to move. Since prolonged inactivity can cause complications, you should encourage movements that help your child regain his/her strength and mobility.
Importantly, make sure your child follows the doctor’s recommendations for physical activities. Although immobility can impede recovery, your child should not participate in strenuous physical activities before the doctor’s recommended timeframe. Therefore, be sure you understand what movements are appropriate at every phase, and what movements you should avoid.
If your child receives physical and/or occupational therapy services, help your child between sessions to make sure he/she is doing the required exercises.
If your child will not receive physical or occupational therapy, avoid muscle atrophy and joint stiffness by encouraging small and gradual movements, like short walks and gentle stretches. However, be sure to follow your doctor’s guidelines on activity levels. And if your child experiences unusual pain or discomfort, stop the activity and consult the doctor.
9. Monitor your child’s health and follow-up as suggested.
Attending follow-up appointments will allow your child’s doctor to monitor your child’s progress and identify any signs of potential complications. These appointments are vital after any pediatric surgery so don’t skip appointments!
10. Provide entertainment for your child.
It’s boring to be stuck in bed. Moreover, a lack of activity and stimulation can cause your child to focus on pain and discomfort. Therefore, provide activities such as puzzles, coloring, card games, board games, movies, etc.
11. Evaluate your child’s emotional and psychological health.
Children and parents may find surgery leads to emotional and psychological challenges. Therefore, you and your child must cope with the stress, anxiety, and emotional aftermath of the surgery.
A professional counselor who specializes in pediatric patients can address the unique emotional needs of your child. The counselor can also teach you coping strategies that can help you manage emotional challenges you might face.
Additionally, encouraging open communication with your child and creating an environment where your child feels comfortable sharing his/her feelings can help your child cope.
And encouraging your child to connect with peers who have experienced similar situations can provide comfort and reduce feelings of isolation.
When preparing for your child’s surgery, there is a lot to think about. Although it’s a scary time, there is power in knowledge. To learn more, read these posts:
- You Can Improve Your Surgical Outcome.
- How to Recover Faster After Surgery.
- Surgical Dangers – What You Need to Know.
- What is the Best Time of Day for Medical Care?
I wrote this article with Leena Roy, an accomplished Digital Marketing Manager who collaborates with Dr. Gursev Sandlas’ Center for Advanced Pediatric Surgery in Mumbai. With a proven track record in crafting effective digital marketing strategies, Leena specializes in SEO, SEM, and other marketing mediums. She has a strong history of assisting brands in enhancing their digital presence and achieving prominent search engine rankings.