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Preparing for surgery and other procedures


It is common for St. Jude patients to undergo many tests, procedures, and sometimes surgery. These serious events can be stressful for the patient and the family, especially if it is the first time.

Many patients and their siblings have unspoken fears, questions, and false ideas about what will happen during these events. They may hear doctors, nurses, and other staff members using words they have never heard. If children and teens are not given information in words that they can understand, they are left to imagine what is going to happen. These thoughts can often be scarier than the actual event.

Preparing your child/teen ahead of time for surgery or procedures will help:

  • Reduce anxiety;
  • Develop his trust in you and the hospital staff;
  • Identify what may be hard for the patient and develop ways to cope; and
  • Give him a sense of control over what is going to happen.

How to help your child/teen through a stressful event

  • Talk in a calm, quiet voice.
  • Be honest. Explain the steps of the upcoming event in simple terms that the patient can understand.
  • Give reasons for the event. Let your child/teen know it is not because he did or said anything wrong.
  • Tell your child/teen what he did that was helpful (such as “You did a good job holding still” or “You’re doing a good job focusing on your breathing”).
  • Offer choices when you can (such as watching or not watching an IV placement, or giving a choice of play items).
  • Involve your child/teen in the event if he wishes.
  • Offer activities that help distract and relax your child/teen.
  • Provide chances for medical play to help your child/teen become familiar with medical supplies.
  • Use comfort positions to help your child feel more in control. See “Do you know… Using comfort positions during stressful events.”

Helpful activities to use during a stressful event

Providing activities for your child/teen can help them cope with a stressful event. Some patients cope better by watching and others cope better by looking away. Using some of the following activities with your child can help make the environment more normal and less stressful.


  • Holding, rocking, patting
  • Speaking in a soft voice
  • Music and singing
  • Comfort items (blanket, rattle)
  • Allow them to suck thumb/pacifier


  • Same as activities for infants
  • Pinwheels
  • Pop-up books and sound books
  • Interactive toys that make sounds


  • Pinwheels
  • Pop-up books and sound books
  • Music and singing
  • Counting (up, down)
  • View-Master® reels and "I Spy" books
  • Talking about favorite things
  • Playing with favorite toys or watching familiar movies


  • Talking about a favorite place to go or thing to do
  • Music
  • Playing with favorite toys
  • Squeezing a ball
  • "I Spy" books and Nintendo DS®
  • Taking slow deep breaths


  • Talking about or imagining a favorite place or event
  • Music or relaxation tapes
  • Hand held games, Nintendo DS®
  • Taking slow deep breaths
  • Squeezing a ball
  • Looking at different illusions

The following can be used with preschool children through teens:

  • Guided imagery (call Child Life or Behavioral Medicine to learn how)
  • Hypnosis (call Behavioral Medicine to learn how)

Brothers and sisters want to know: How to help siblings

Siblings often wonder what is happening to their brother or sister. Giving them the facts can help them understand and clarify any false ideas they might have. It gives them a chance to express their thoughts and feelings, have questions answered, and feel included. You may see siblings fighting for attention or becoming more aggressive or withdrawn. These are common responses. The following are ways you can help:

  • Include siblings if they are present (such as involving them in talks, giving them a job, providing something for them to focus on like a book, a favorite toy, game, or movie).
  • If possible, allow siblings to leave the room if they want. They may not want to be present for procedures, and this is OK.
  • Provide chances for medical play. This can help siblings know what to expect when they see their brother or sister after surgery (such as body changes, lack of energy, and changes in mood).
  • Make sure the siblings understand that none of this is their fault.
  • After the surgery and early recovery are over, make time just for siblings.
  • If siblings cannot come to the hospital, you can ask your child life specialist to send resources home (a letter, activity books, or a medical play doll with a line, a port, a G-tube, etc.).

Helpful hints for parents

Helping your child/teen through a painful procedure, through anesthesia, and through surgery is often very stressful. It can sometimes be overwhelming. It is important to know that the staff is there to support you.

  • Ask questions (it is normal to forget things if you are feeling overwhelmed). Keep a notebook so you can write questions down as they come up.
  • Take slow deep breaths.
  • Patients’ reactions often are based on how parents respond. It is helpful to remain calm and reassure your child during stressful events.
  • Helping your child focus on an activity also helps you to focus on something.
  • Staff will meet with you beforehand to discuss what will happen and have you sign consent forms. In surgery, a staff member will need to mark the surgery site with a marker.
  • When your child/teen is having anesthesia, it is normal for the body to go limp and for the eyes to roll back. Patients may also appear restless. Staff members will be there to support you through this.
  • A staff member will escort you out of the room after your child/teen is asleep and may ask you to leave before if needed.
  • For surgery, one (1) parent can go back to the Operating Room (OR) with the patient until the patient is asleep. However, the staff may request that the parent stay in the waiting area.
  • Each patient wakes up from anesthesia in his own way. You will be called back to the Post Anesthesia Care Unit (recovery room) as soon as the nurse has had time to assess your child.

A child life specialist can help prepare your family for procedures or surgery. This staff member can use medical play, pre-op tours, and other preparations to show patients and families what to expect (before, during, and after the event). This gives the family a chance to:

  • See actual medical supplies and know how they are used;
  • Ask questions;
  • Express feelings; and
  • Develop coping plans.

Information is presented at the child’s level of understanding. It is based on how much information the child/teen asks to have.


If you have questions or would like to schedule a preparation and tour, talk to your child life specialist. If you are away from the hospital, please call the Child Life department. Locally, dial 901-595-3020. If you are outside the Memphis area, call toll-free 1-866-2STJUDE (1-866-278-5833), extension 3020.

This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.

St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.

ATTENTION: If you speak another language, assistance services, free of charge, are available to you. Call 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

ATENCIÓN: si habla español, tiene a su disposición servicios gratuitos de asistencia lingüística. Llame al 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

تنبيه: إذا كنت تتحدث باللغة العربية فيمكنك الاستعانة بخدمات المساعدة اللغوية المتوفرة لك مجانا. .يرجى الاتصال بالرقم. 5833-278-866-1  (الهاتف النصي: 1040-595-901-1).