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When Your Child Needs Surgery: Words to Use with Your Child

Your child is having surgery. Learn all you can about the surgery to help your child prepare. This sheet lists some of the common words and phrases that describe surgery. And it gives you suggestions for how to explain these words to your child. Ask a member of your child’s healthcare team for help if you have questions.

General Tips

When speaking with your child about surgery, keep the following tips in mind:

  • First, ask your child what he or she understands about the surgery. This gives you a starting point for your discussion.

  • Discuss only what your child will be awake for and remember. 

  • Use short and simple words that your child knows.

  • Be honest with your child. If your child asks questions, answer truthfully.

Surgery Terms and Phrases

Following are common words you’ll hear about surgery:

  • Blood pressure cuff: a device that is wrapped around the upper arm or the leg to check blood pressure. The cuff squeezes the arm or leg when blood pressure is measured.

    • Sample words to use: “the blood pressure cuff gives your arm or leg a hug”

    • Suggestions: Mention that the cuff will feel tight, but then becomes looser and looser.

  • Electrodes: small sticky pads connected to wires that are placed on the chest and/or the legs to track the heartbeat during surgery.

    • Sample words to use: “stickers placed on your body to help the doctor listen to your heart”

    • Suggestions: Mention that electrodes don’t hurt. 

  • Gurney: a hospital bed with wheels.

    • Sample words to use: “bed with wheels”

    • Words to avoid: “stretcher”  

    • Suggestions: Let your child know that a gurney may be used to bring him or her into the operating room. Your child may also wake up on a gurney after surgery.

  • Nurse: a healthcare provider who helps with your child’s care in the hospital.

    • Suggestions: Mention that a nurse may be a male or female. Also, let your child know that many different nurses will help with your child’s care in the hospital.

  • Surgeon: the doctor who performs your child’s surgery.

    • Suggestions: Mention that a surgeon may be a male or female.

  • Incision: opening made on the body by the surgeon to perform the surgery.

    • Sample words to use: “opening that’s made during surgery and is closed up when surgery is done”

    • Words to avoid: “cut open”  

    • Suggestions: Explain what an incision is and where it will be on the body. Mention that the incision will heal similarly to the way a scrape or cut heals. Reassure your child that the doctor will make the smallest opening possible.

  • General anesthesia: medication that causes your child to fall asleep and not feel pain during surgery. There are several types of anesthesia, but general anesthesia is the most common type used for children. It can be given in gas form through a mask or in liquid form through an intravenous (IV) line. Reassure your child that he or she will remain asleep for the entire surgery and not wake before the procedure is complicated.

    • Sample words to use: “sleep medicine” or “surgery sleep medicine”

    • Words to avoid: “put to sleep” and “gas”

    • Suggestions: Make sure your child understands that sleeping for surgery is different from sleeping at night. Reassure your child that the anesthesiologist will stop giving anesthesia when surgery is finished and that your child will wake up afterward.

  • Anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist: a doctor or nurse who has training to give anesthesia.

    • Sample words to use: “surgery sleep doctor”

  • Mask: used when your child receives general anesthesia in gas form. The mask covers the nose and mouth while your child breathes in the anesthesia.

    • Words to avoid: “gas”

    • Suggestions: Let your child know that the mask may have a flavoring. This is to improve the smell of the anesthesia when your child breathes it in. 

  • Intravenous (IV) line: a thin flexible tube that is placed in a vein (blood vessel).

    • Sample words to use: “An IV is used to give your body things it needs, like medicine.”

    • Suggestions: Let your child knows that the letters “I” and “V” stand for “in your vein” and not “ivy” like the plant.

  • Recovery room: where your child will wake up after surgery. It is also commonly called the PACU (postanesthesia care unit).

    • Sample words to use: “wake-up room”

    • Suggestions: Let your child know that you will be in the recovery room with him or her, if possible.

Online Medical Reviewer: Grantham, Paula, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 2/14/2013
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