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Preparing Your Preschooler for Surgery

Child Life and Therapeutic Arts Programs

Before Surgery – Preschool (3 to 5 Years Old)

Talk to the healthcare team to make sure you understand your preschooler’s condition and how to offer support before surgery. You’ll be more relaxed and better able to offer comfort and reassurance.

What is my preschooler concerned about before surgery?

  • Imagining that a surgical procedure will be different or worse than it is
  • Believing that surgery is a punishment for something he or she has done
  • Experiencing pain or injury to the body

How can I help make the surgery experience less stressful for my preschooler?

  • Give them time to prepare. It is best to provide an honest and developmentally appropriate explanation of surgery and the hospital three to five days before surgery. For example, you can say:

“Your [name of body part] is [sick/hurt/not working the way it should] and we’re going to go to the hospital so the doctors can help to make it better The doctors will give you medicine so you sleep while they help your [name of body part] get better. This medicine makes it so that you don’t feel, see or hear anything while the doctors are helping your [name of body part]. We will stay at the hospital until the doctors are done helping your [name of body part]. Would you like to bring a favorite toy or stuffed animal with you when we go to the hospital?”

  • Encourage self-expression. Your preschooler may have a lot of different feelings about the surgery. Tell your child what is going to happen before, during and after surgery in words that are easy to understand. One way to help your child prepare for the visit is to talk about ways to manage stress or other uncomfortable feelings. Suggest helpful techniques, such as bringing a comfort item or favorite toy, or taking deep breaths. Reassure your child that it is OK to cry, and it’s normal to feel scared.
  • PLAY! Children love to play, and it’s an excellent way for them to express their feelings. Play can offer a safe outlet for them to communicate. They can express and learn to manage any fears or misconceptions. Play with doctor kits is a great way to familiarize preschoolers with and normalize healthcare. Engage in medical play with your child using the doctor kit. They can use a favorite doll or stuffed animal as their patient. It may help to play or pretend “going to the hospital and having surgery.”
  • Offer choices when appropriate. There are often limited choices for patients once they’re in the hospital. Giving preschoolers choices, when possible, can provide a sense of control. Some examples of choices include:
    • What comfort items would you like to bring to the hospital?
    • What toy would you like to bring along to play with?
    • What movie would you like to watch after surgery?
    • Which favorite food or drink do you want to have when you get home after surgery? (Be sure to check with the doctor first about diet restrictions.)
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