NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital

Center for Community Health

Preparing Your Preschooler for Surgery

We recommend talking to your preschooler about surgery three to five days before his or her procedure. Preparation too far in advance can increase their anxiety. You know your child best; please use this information as a basic guideline.

How can I help prepare my preschooler?

  • Children at this age have vivid imaginations and experience “magical thinking”. They may think they did something wrong to cause them to have surgery. It is very common for them to imagine things to be scarier than they actually are, encourage your child to express any feelings he or she may have.
  • Use simple words to explain the surgery or procedure. As a general guide, explain only what your child will actually experience, remember they will be sleeping comfortably with anesthesia for most of the surgical experience.
  • Be honest but gentle with your child. Avoid words like, “cut”, “needle”, “gas” or “put to sleep” as they may cause stress or anxiety for your child. Instead, use words like “sleeping medicine” or “poke”.
    • Here is an example of explaining a tonsillectomy: “Sometimes it hurts when you eat and drink. Well, we have to go to the hospital so the doctors can help your throat get better. The doctors will give you a special sleeping medicine while they fix your throat. Then when you wake up, I will be with you. Your throat might feel like it has an “owie” for a little while but the doctors will give you medicine to help it feel better. Then we will go home and…”
  • Reassure your child that you will be there with them during your visit to the hospital.
  • Read simple children’s books about going to the hospital.
  • Use play items to teach your child about surgery. Preschoolers like to learn and explore through dramatic play. Toy medical kits can help your child become familiar with medical equipment.
  • Allow your child to choose comfort items or toys to bring from home (ex. stuffed animals or a blanket). These will help your child feel safe and secure.

What can I do to help my preschooler cope at the hospital?

  • Children at this age will want to stay close to their caregivers. Don’t be surprised if your child wants to sit on your lap or is holding onto you a little tighter than usual. You are their sense of security and safety.
  • Stay calm and patient. It is normal for preschoolers to regress a little bit prior to or after a procedure.
  • You are the best medicine! Your touch and voice will comfort your child more than anything will.