Kids having surgery may need to have tests beforehand – and will also need to fast for a few hours before the surgery itself. It’s a difficult time, but our guide aims to make it a little easier. Knowing what to expect and having strategies for easing your child’s anxiety will help you prepare them for what’s ahead.
In this article, you can find information on:
- Helping kids cope with medical procedures
- Preparing for blood tests
- What happens in an MRI?
- Fasting for surgery – What parents need to know
Helping kids cope with medical procedures
Whether it’s having a test, treatment or surgery, ask your doctor what your child can expect – and if he or she has any advice on how to prepare your child.
General tips include:
It’s tempting to say a procedure won’t hurt or be uncomfortable but research suggests that honesty is best. If a procedure turns out to be painful or difficult, it may be hard for kids to trust other information you give them. Being honest while trying not to frighten them can be tricky – one tip from the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne (RCHM) is to say, ‘some kids say it hurts a bit, but others aren’t so bothered’.
Play can help prepare them
Playing ‘doctor’ or ‘hospitals’ with younger kids, using a play doctor’s kit and soft toys or dolls can help familiarise younger kids with simple procedures and hospital equipment.
…and so can books.
Whether it’s Peppa Pig or Dr Seuss, there are children’s books to help give younger kids an idea of what it’s like to be in hospital. Looking at books together can encourage them to ask questions and talk about any worries they may have. There’s a list of good books on the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network website here.
Explain what happens during the procedure.
Use words they understand and avoid words or phrases that might scare them – e.g. rather than ‘cut you open’ to explain surgery, say the surgeon will ‘fix’ or ‘mend’ a part of their body. Rather than say ‘gas’ to describe an anaesthetic, use ‘sleep medicine’.
How soon should they know about the procedure?
Ask your medical team for guidance – it can depend on the individual child, their age and if they’ve had previous experience of tests or surgery, for example. If there’s a Child Life Therapist available, they can give advice and support too.
Find ways to help them feel less anxious.
Again, it depends on the child’s age and the procedure – listening to music, familiar toys, deep breathing, or a parent/carer reading to them or telling stories can help. You can also give them strategies for coping during a procedure like ‘try not to keep thinking about what’s happening -think of something pleasant instead’.
Give lots of praise and positive re-enforcement after a test.
Sometimes a small reward or treat may encourage kids to co-operate during a test and make the experience more positive.
For more tips see Children’s painful procedures and operations from the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network and Reducing children’s discomfort during tests and procedures from the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne.
How Child Life Therapists can help
Some hospitals have Child Life Therapists who may be able to help. These health professionals are trained to help reduce anxiety and stress in children having medical procedures or treatment in hospital. Camp Quality is a major funder of Child Life Therapy – read more about them here.
Preparation for blood tests
FB bloods, FBE or FBC blood test – what do they all mean?
FBE or FB is short for a full blood examination (but it’s also known as a full blood count or FBC, or a complete blood count or CBC). This blood test can be part of a routine health check, or to check for, diagnose or keep an eye on a variety of conditions. The test looks at the number, types and sizes of different cells in the blood.
What happens in a blood test?
An FBE is done on a sample of blood taken by a needle from a vein in the arm or by a finger prick. Some kids like to watch the nurse doing the test, others might need distraction with a book, toys, talking to them or watching a movie on your phone. You can sit younger kids on your lap or hold their hand. When it‘s over, tell them they’ve done a good job.
Tips for preparing your child for a blood test.
- Explain that it will involve a needle prick to take a small amount of blood. If they ask ‘will it hurt?’ be truthful. Again, you can say ‘some children say it hurts a bit, others aren’t so bothered’. However, parents or carers can apply numbing cream to the relevant area of hands, inner elbows or fingers before going to hospital or a pathology service. For kids already in a hospital ward or in the emergency room, a nurse or doctor can apply numbing cream before the blood test, if necessary. Numbing cream is applied either 30 or 60 minutes before the test, depending on the brand of cream used.
- Watching a video together showing what happens in a blood test helps them know what to expect. See A child’s guide: IV blood tests and A child’s guide: Finger prick – two videos from the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne.
What happens in an MRI?
What’s an MRI?
A type of medical imaging that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to take pictures inside the body. It provides more detailed images of soft tissue (e.g. organs, muscles and ligaments) than X-rays or ultrasound. It’s painless and involves lying on a table which slides into a scanner that’s like a tunnel. Kids need to stay very still during an MRI. Paediatric hospitals have MRI scanners with built in DVD players so they can watch their favourite movie during the scan. Or they can listen to music.
Kids under five, kids with disabilities or with additional medical needs may need sedation. A parent or carer can stay in the room with them during the MRI. If the hospital has a Child Life Therapist, kids can usually visit an MRI facility beforehand, along with the therapist, as part of their preparation for the scan.
There are no known long term side effects from an MRI.
You need to remove anything made of metal from your child, e.g. jewellery or watches, before the MRI. Your child will usually need to change into a cotton gown. Some kids may need a cannula (like a tiny straw) placed in the back of their hand or elbow. This allows medical staff to inject a contrast dye to help doctors see extra parts of the scan. Kids can have a local anaesthetic cream on their skin to reduce discomfort.
How long does an MRI take?
This varies depending on the type of scan and the part of the body being scanned. Some may take 20 minutes, others make take 60 or even 90 minutes. It’s a good idea to check with staff beforehand.
How long does an MRI of the brain take?
Usually around 15 to 30 minutes, although some can take up to 40 minutes.
Tips for preparing your child for an MRI.
- Let them know that an MRI won’t hurt and won’t touch them. They might hear weird noises like clicks and bangs but this is just the sound of the machine taking pictures.
- Help them choose a DVD they’d like to watch (if a DVD player is available), or music they’d like to listen to during the scan.
- If possible, get them to practise lying still for a few minutes – try ‘let’s pretend you’re a statue’, ‘let’s pretend you’ve been frozen’, or have a competition – ‘let’s see who can stay still the longest’, and time how long each one of you can stay still.
- Let them know you can stay in the room with them while they have the scan.
- Check out this video for kids from the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne on what it’s like to have an MRI. You and your child can watch it together.
CT scan v. MRI – what’s the difference?
A CT or CAT scan (short for computed tomography scan) uses X-rays and digital computer technology to provide detailed images of the body including bone, blood vessels and soft tissue. An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses a magnetic field and radio waves to take images of soft tissue. Both CT scans and MRIs can are used for diagnosis and planning treatment. MRIs are used for conditions that a CT scan can’t detect.
Fasting for surgery – what parents need to know
Why do you need to fast before surgery?
You need to have an empty stomach when you have surgery so it’s important to avoid food and drink for a few hours before an anaesthetic. This reduces the risk of vomiting, and of vomit entering the windpipe or lungs.
How long do you need to fast for?
The medical staff will explain when your child needs to stop eating or drinking – be guided by them. In general, you can give breast milk to kids under six months up to three hours before surgery; formula can be given up to four hours before surgery. Kids aged six months or older can’t have food or milk products for at least six hours before surgery (including chewing gum or lollies). They can have clear liquids (meaning liquids you can see through) such as water, clear fruit juice or cordial) up to one hour before surgery.
How long before surgery should you stop drinking water?
Again, your medical team will advise you. Generally, for babies under six months, water can be given up to one hour before surgery. Kids aged six months or older can have clear liquids up to one hour before surgery.
How can you take their minds off feeling hungry?
An iPad, watching movies, colouring in or drawing, or a favourite game can help. If a Child Life Therapist is available, they can also help with fun activities – but it’s a good idea to bring things from home.
How soon after surgery can your child eat or drink?
Once you have the go ahead from medical staff, kids can drink and eat shortly after surgery. It’s best to start off with something light. This might include an ice block or some apple juice, then a sandwich.
Where Can I Find More Information About Preparing For Surgery?
Camp Quality’s free Kids' Guide to Cancer gives kids information about hospitals, treatment and surgery in ways they can understand. Available as an app or online guide, it’s designed for kids up to 15.VISIT OUR KIDS’ GUIDE TO CANCER
Other good online resources:
A child’s guide: Surgery from the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne – a video about prepping kids for surgery that you and your child can watch together. It shows what happens before surgery and what it’s like to have an anaesthetic, all in a non-scary way.
Preparing your child for surgery: Fact sheet from Monash Children’s Hospital.
Preparing a child for hospital. The Better Health Channel. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/servicesandsupport/preparing-a-child-for-hospital#bhc-content
The information needs of children having clinical procedures in hospital. Will it hurt? Will I feel scared? What can I do to stay calm? Lucy Bray et al, Childcare Health and Development, September 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6851850/
Preparing your child for medical procedures. Sydney Children’s Hospital Network https://www.schn.health.nsw.gov.au/hospitals/sch/inpatients/medical-procedures
Coping with painful procedures. Kids Cancer Centre https://www.kidscancercentre.com/cancer/coping/coping-with-painful-procedures/
Children’s painful procedures and operations. Sydney Children’s Hospital Network. https://www.schn.health.nsw.gov.au/fact-sheets/childrens-painful-procedures-and-operations
Preparing your child for surgery. Monash Children’s hospital.
Reducing your child’s discomfort during procedures. Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne
MRI Scan. Better Health Channel https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/mri-scan#issues-to-consider-prior-to-an-mri
CT scan vs. MRI: what’s the difference? And how do doctors choose which imaging method to use? Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. https://www.mskcc.org/news/ct-vs-mri-what-s-difference-and-how-do-doctors-choose-which-imaging-method-use#:~:text=CT%20scans%20take%20a%20fast,a%20CT%20scan%20cannot%20detect
Full blood count (FBC).Health Direct. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/full-blood-count#:~:text=A%20full%20blood%20count%20(FBC)%20is%20a%20very%20common%20blood,full%20blood%20examination%20(FBE).
Full blood count. Australasian Association for Clinical Biochemistry and Laboratory Medicine. https://pathologytestsexplained.org.au/learning/test-index/fbc
A child’s guide: Surgery. Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne.