9 tips + tricks to prepare for your child’s surgery

Your emotions may be everywhere at once, but you've got this, mama.

9 tips + tricks to prepare for your child’s surgery

So you've been told your child needs surgery. Your emotions may be everywhere at once. You may have gotten a second opinion, or even a third, before consenting to proceed with surgery, coming close to choosing your baby's surgeon with higher standards than your life partner.


As the operation date approaches, questions race through your mind at frequent and spontaneous moments and few things can help keep you sane, focused and relaxed. If possible, take time to do a fun activity with your child, read a favorite story, or watch that episode of Troll Hunters together that you've seen too many times to count.

As an anesthesiologist and mom, here are some recommendations from inside the operating room to educate yourself about what to expect if your child is having surgery. While these guidelines are not absolute, they're meant to help navigate the medical system used by your child's caregivers and to be aware of what they'll ask of you.

If any of your doctor's recommendations seem vague or unclear, don't hesitate to ask more questions. Ultimately, remember that the goal of parent education is never to create more worries, but rather to remove some of the stress of uncertainty.

1. Follow eating and drinking recommendations carefully.

You may think it will only be a minor inconvenience if your child feels nauseous after surgery, and consider giving her food before the procedure because they need to eat. But, even if your toddler is having tantrums of epic proportions, resist the urge to feed her as it can really make her sick afterward. Rest assured that she'll be kept hydrated during surgery.

Fasting guidelines are extremely important and have been developed by the American Society of Anesthesiologists for your child's safety. Having an empty stomach is critical to preventing the aspiration of stomach contents into the lungs. In serious cases, this occurs when stomach acid refluxes upward and can cause fatal pneumonia.

It's usually okay to have breast milk or clear fluids, such as apple juice, no sooner than two hours prior to surgery. Solid foods, formula and cow milk take much longer to empty from the stomach and should not be given before. Always check with your doctor's office for individual recommendations.

2. Your scheduled surgery may happen sooner or later than expected.

While it can be frustrating when plans change, try to remain patient with the doctors, nurses and staff. If your baby's case is delayed, it means the staff is busy preparing the operating room properly or giving another child the same meticulous attention that will be given to your child when it's their turn.

It's a good idea to bring some toys or activities to pass the time for both yourself and your child. A phone and charger in case the doctor needs to reach you for an update is a good idea, too. Books, magazines, stickers and crayons are all useful. It's also wise to make childcare arrangements for your other children in the case you're at the hospital longer than expected.

3. Intraoperative time also varies widely—so don’t panic.

Your child's surgery may take longer than expected. Some surgeons take twice as long as others to do the same operation. But, it doesn't mean anything is wrong! If surgery goes on much longer than what was discussed with you, it's reasonable to ask the operating room staff to call into the room for an update. As soon as surgery is complete, your surgeon will give you a report of how the operation went.

4. You may be asked to stay in the recovery room to reorient your child post-op.

Every facility has a different policy, and some centers may have you rejoin your child when they are more awake. Emergence reactions, such as kicking or eyes moving around in different directions, are common following surgery, and these are usually normal. They may even say odd things, stare blankly, or cry. As the anesthesia wears off, these reactions will dissipate.

5. They may be able to bring their favorite stuffed animal or a blanket into the operating room.

Make sure it's a subtle and small toy. While infection control rules are different everywhere, most doctors will allow small items that help decrease separation anxiety and help to comfort children.

6. You may even be allowed to enter the OR to see your child off to sleep.

Ask ahead of time to put on the proper attire required to enter the operating room, such as scrubs or a mask, surgical cap and paper suit that cover your clothing and hair. After your child goes to sleep, you'll be escorted back to the waiting room.

If you're squeamish about medical settings, this probably isn't a good choice for you. The doctors and nurses will have two patients to care for if you suddenly feel faint. If you choose to let your child go in alone, trust that they will be well cared for by medical professionals. If you're still struggling with this leap of faith, patient advocates and spiritual care are often available to visit with you during this time to help with anxiety.

7. Older children may be offered the option of going to sleep with a mask OR an IV.

If your child is squeamish about needles, they can breathe a sleeping gas through a mask similar to an aviation-style pilot's mask as an alternative to IV placement. The mask typically smells like a plastic toy. Pediatric anesthesiologists may offer your child a choice of scented lip balm flavors that they can choose to put on the mask, too.

The sleeping gas is usually described as smelling like apples and it only takes a few breaths to induce general anesthesia. If your child is claustrophobic or doesn't like the idea of a face mask, an intravenous induction with an injectable medication also works quickly and is appropriate for many children. Talk with your surgeon to see if your child can have the option to feel most comfortable.

8. You’ll likely be asked the same questions repeatedly.

This redundancy is meant to prevent medical errors. It may be frustrating when the third staff member asks you if your child has any allergies and what surgery your child is there to have performed. It may even seem like they don't know what the plan is, but this repetition is built into the system of checks and rechecks to increase patient safety and to make sure that a patient going into surgery to have their broken elbow repaired does not wake up a tonsillectomy. As you can imagine, with children, extra precautions are taken to verify that the correct surgical site, correct side, and corrective surgery are performed, since children are often too young to speak for themselves.

9. Understand they may not act their age.

Your child may revert to more childish stages of behavior in the time before and after surgery. This is completely normal. Tantrums in older children, bed wetting or crying may be signs of anxiety when children cannot express their fears verbally.

This reversion to earlier stages may be more common in children with chronic medical conditions who have had a repeated procedure, but not always. This should pass, as the anesthetic and pain medications wear off completely. Providing a supportive environment and reassurance is valuable to your son or daughter during this time.

When you meet your anesthesiologist and surgeon, keep in mind that even doctor moms and dads feel a sense of powerlessness when seeing their child wheeled off to surgery. "Even though I knew intellectually it was minor surgery (ear tubes), I felt I was giving up my little girl to a woman I had just met," says Dr. Tricia Wright.

You're not alone, and neither is your child when they leave your arms. They'll be surrounded by doctors and nurses who may even be parents, too, and are sharply focused on the safety and comfort during their time under anesthesia and the postoperative recovery phase.

Most importantly, trust yourself as a mom to make personal decisions in your child's best interest, and to care for them, equipped with the knowledge of what to expect surrounding their operation.

Mama, you've got this.

You might also like:

We're so glad to live in a time when modern baby gear exists. Sure, no one is going to argue that having a baby is easy—but it can be easier with support from some gadgets designed to help your baby and put your mind at ease.

As you build your baby registry, look for products that go the extra mile to make your life a whole lot easier. For example, what's better than a bassinet? A bassinet that can rock by itself. And what's better than a traditional baby monitor? One that allows you to actually take a peek at your baby. Believe us when we say these upgrades can make all the difference.

Here are 10 baby gadgets that will make your life so much easier… relatively speaking, of course!

A bassinet to promote safe + sound sleep

HALO Innovations Bassinest Swivel Sleeper Essenta Series Nautical Net

The safest place for your newborn to sleep is in your room, but not in your bed. Thanks to the swivel function of the Halo Bassinest, you can easily tend to your baby during the night—which means more sleep for you, too. Trust us when we say that is the best gift you can give a new parent.


A smart swing for your baby

4moms mamaRoo 4 Bluetooth Enabled High-Tech Baby Swing - Classic

Believe it or not, many babies are born with strong opinions about how they want to be rocked, swung or shushed to calm down. With the mamaRoo's various motions and reclining positions, you'll be able to find a setting your baby loves when you need to free up your hands for a bit.


A complete travel system for car + sidewalk

Chicco Bravo Travel System - Indigo

No matter where the day takes you—or what mode of transportation you need to get there—getting a complete travel system for your baby will equip you for anything.


A swaddle you don’t have to wrestle

Love To Dream Swaddle UP Original

What do babies and Harry Houdini have in common? A knack for breaking out of tight constraints—which can be a headache when swaddling is the best way to help promote good sleep. Thanks to a breakout-proof swaddle that allows your baby to sleep with their hands up, you don't have to work up a sweat just to get your baby comfortably swaddled.


A nursery wherever you need it

Baby Trend Lil Snooze Deluxe II Nursery Center

During the early days of parenting (when you are feeding and changing your baby around the clock), having convenient access to everything you need with a go-anywhere nursery station can save you serious time and energy.


A little help for stuffy noses

Fridababy NoseFrida Nasal Aspirator

Up until the point years down the road when your child is able to blow their own nose, the sniffles can be a real struggle—but not with a nasal aspirator that makes it easy for you to get that snot out of their nose.


A way to keep an eye on your baby

VTech 5" Digital Video Baby Monitor - VM5251

Trust us when we say you'll sleep better when you know your baby is also sleeping soundly. That's why we're so thankful for modern-day video monitors, which allow you to check in on your sleeping baby without running the risk of waking them up when you sneak in for a peek.


A bassinet for hands-free rocking

Simmons Kids Silent Auto Gliding Elite Bassinet - Odyssey

Babies are soothed by rocking motions. But what does that mean for you if you can't rock them throughout the night? With an auto-gliding bassinet, they can comfortably drift off to sleep... and continue snoozing.


An easy way to contain diaper smells

Diaper Genie Expressions Pail

Sometimes it's the little conveniences that make a big difference in the quality of your day-to-day life. That's why a great diaper pail should not be undervalued: By containing the smell, you will save yourself dozens upon dozens of trips to the garbage can.


A white noise machine that pulls double duty

Hatch Rest Sound Machine, Night Light & Time-to-Rise

A phone-controlled sound machine may be something you never considered until now, but it will be a major lifesaver for years to come, especially as it can also function as a time-to-rise clock that promotes good sleep habits for your child.


And as for securing all these awesome products? Well, a Target baby registry is the way to do it. By creating your baby registry with Target, you will also enjoy their Year of Benefits registry program, which includes perks like a welcome kit with more than $100 in savings and samples, two 15% off coupons to complete your registry, and a full year of returns. The benefits are better than ever right now: Target just launched the Year of Exclusive Deals perk as one of its registry benefits, and this includes a year's worth of discounts on baby essentials (think diapers and formula) and comes complementary when you sign up for Target Circle.

Because while parenting may not be "easy," deciding to register with Target definitely is an easy decision. Start your Target baby registry now and enjoy shopping with a Year of Benefits featuring a Year of Exclusive Deals available via Target Circle, two 15% off coupons, a year of hassle-free returns, a free welcome kit and more!

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

Every week, we stock the Motherly Shop with innovative and fresh products from brands we feel good about. We want to be certain you don't miss anything, so to keep you in the loop, we're providing a cheat sheet.

So, what's new this week?

Earth Mama: Effective, natural herbal care for mamas and babies

Founded and grown in her own garage in 2002, Earth Mama started as an operation of one, creating salves, tinctures, teas and soaps with homegrown herbs. With a deep desire to bring the healing powers of nature that have been relied on for thousands of years to as many mamas as possible, Melinda Olson's formulas quickly grew into Earth Mama Organics. Since then, the brand has remained committed to manufacturing clean, safe and effective herbal solutions for the entire journey of motherhood, including pregnancy, breastfeeding and baby care, and even the loss of a baby.

Bravado Designs: Soothing sounds for a good night's sleep

With 28 years of serving pregnant and postpartum mamas under their belt, Bravado Designs is a true authority on the needs of changing bodies. It's true that we have them to thank for rescuing us from the uncomfortable and frumpy designs our own moms had to live with. Launched in Canada by two young mamas, they designed the first prototypes with extra leopard print fabric certain that a better bra was possible. Throughout the years they've maintained their commitment to ethical manufacturing while creating long-lasting products that truly work.

The Sill: Instagram-ready potted plants

We've long admired this female-founded brand and the brilliant mind behind it, Eliza Blank. (She even joined Motherly co-founder Liz Tenety on and episode of The Motherly Podcast!) The mission behind the business was simple: To make the process of bringing plants into your home as easy as possible, and as wonderful as the plant themselves. With their in-house, exclusively designed minimalist planters, the end result makes plant parenthood just a few clicks away.

Not sure where to start? Here's what we're adding to our cart:

Keep reading Show less

10 photos to take on baby’s first day that you'll cherish forever

You'll obsess over these newborn baby pictures.

Bethany Menzel: Instagram + Blog

As you're preparing for baby's birth, we bet you're dreaming of all of the amazing photos you'll take of your precious new babe. As a professional photographer and mama, I have some tips for newborn photos you'll want to capture.

Here are the 10 photos you will want to take on baby's first day.

Keep reading Show less