There’s No Place Like Home: How Child Life Cares for Kids Before, During and After Surgery

mission children's hospital child life surgeryBy Sam LaRose

Sticks and stones may break bones, but Child Life is there! Did you know that falls are the leading cause of nonfatal injuries for children? Injuries from falls may not always be serious, but sometimes they can lead to broken bones – and sometimes broken bones can mean surgery. While kids always seem braver than we realize, the idea and uncertainty of surgery can cause feelings of fear, stress or anxiety for little ones, and that may leave parents feeling a little helpless, scared or anxious, too. Don’t worry, mom and dad, there is a team to help you and your little one before, during and after surgery.

Meet Child Life, a team dedicated to helping relieve anxiety and fear. The Mission Health Child Life team offers creative and impactful ways to help children and their loved ones prepare and heal from serious medical procedures.

The First Steps

From the moment a patient and their family enter the hospital, Child Life assists them with adjusting to the hospital setting. Child Life team members use a tactic known as stress-point preparation to address patient and family concerns.

A component of stress-point preparation is informing the patient about each specific step in the surgical experience – from the waiting room to preop, going to the operating room, the recovery room, and discharge or transfer to another area within the hospital.

After the procedure, Child Life works with the PACU (Post Anesthesia Care Unit) on the reunification of the caregiver (the parent or legal guardian) and the patient in the recovery room.

Sometimes parents are unsure of how they can comfort their child while they are hooked up to an IV and monitors, or a younger child may wake up tearful, which might alarm the caregiver. It’s important that we reassure the families that this is a normal reaction and that one of the most helpful things they can do is simply hold and comfort their child.

It Starts at Home

Child Life suggests introducing children to the idea of hospitals and doctors at home by partaking in medical play, such as playing doctor. Children often project their emotions and anxieties onto a doll or stuffed animal through medical play, which can help children gain control over their hospital experience.

An additional benefit of playing doctor is that it normalizes medical equipment and creates a sense of familiarity with the procedure and environment for children. There’s no place like home – having your child partake in medical play within your home can help them adjust when they arrive at the hospital. The home is a safe and secure place for your child to ask you medical questions they might have.

Communication Is Key

Another helpful presurgery tool is dialogue. It is appropriate to have conversations about the surgery at different points, depending on the child’s age. Younger children should be told closer to the day of the surgery, while you might tell school-age children a week or two in advance.

Here are suggested ages and a timeline:

Be sure to allow enough time and space that your child can ask questions about the surgery. Answer questions in an open and honest manner, as it will help build trust between you and your child. This will also help them build trust and a relationship with their doctor and other healthcare professionals more easily.

Child Life for Siblings

Our Child Life team is also there for siblings. A procedure doesn’t just take a toll on the child who needs it – it may also affect a child’s sibling(s). Child Life specialists encourage siblings to be involved and a part of the child’s support team, and can help siblings by offering activities that help normalize the hospital experience as much as possible.

In order to help keep them distracted and busy, siblings are encouraged to play. If they choose to, they can decorate their own anesthesia mask. Some siblings will choose to write words of love and encouragement on their sick brother’s or sister’s bed.

(Child) Life after Surgery

You might notice some behavioral changes in your child after the surgery concludes. It is important to know that behavioral changes are normal. After being in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar environment, it might take time for the child to become acclimated to any type of daily routine they might have had before their procedure. Once your child is home and becomes reacquainted to daily life, you will likely see these behavioral changes decline.

After spending so much time with your sick child, their siblings may begin to feel neglected. It is important to make time for brothers and sisters. Siblings have the same needs of knowing they’ll continue to be cared for by the caregivers in their lives and that their normal routines will be maintained. It’s recommended to carve out uninterrupted time to spend with the sibling, even if the time spent is limited immediately following surgery.

Child Life team members know how scary surgery can be for the whole family, especially when a child is involved. Let our Child Life team help give your family and child peace of mind.


Learn more about the Child Life program at Mission Health at missionchildrens.org [1]