Treatments and tests

Preparing your child for an anaesthetic

Children generally respond well to a simple explanation of the procedure a few days prior to being admitted to hospital. Your child’s questions should be answered simply and truthfully. Children may become distressed on the day if a parent has not told the truth about going to hospital and this can result in major distress for the child.

Parent anxiety is another cause of distress for a child in hospital. Children sense when a parent is anxious or upset. Reducing your own anxiety is vital to minimise your child's distress. If you have concerns about the procedure or the anaesthetic, address these with the doctor or specialist beforehand.

Before the anaesthetic

  • Fasting (not eating) is necessary to reduce the risk of food or fluid being vomited and inhaled into the lungs. This can be a serious condition. You will be given specific information about your child’s fasting, usually by phone, a day or two before your child’s admission. Short periods of fasting are completely harmless, even for small babies.
  • Medications, including asthma puffers, should be given as usual. Non-prescription or herbal medicines can cause problems such as increased bleeding. Tell your doctor if your child has been taking such non-prescription medications, and make sure your child stops taking them one week before the procedure. The anaesthetist will need a full list of all your child’s medications, including non-prescription and herbal.
  • Bring any special toys or comfort items to the hospital to reduce child anxiety.

You will meet your child's anaesthetist before the procedure. They will examine your child and ask several questions to help them plan the best anaesthesia option.

This is the time to bring up any of your own concerns or anxieties. It is important to mention any previous bad medical experiences or specific fears your child may have, for example a fear of needles or masks.

What happens during an anaesthetic?

Just before the procedure

To begin, a nurse applies a numbing cream to the back of your child's hand. This makes insertion of a drip painless for most children.

An oral sedative medication is sometimes given to children to help them relax before their procedure. This is useful for children who are afraid, anxious or uncooperative. It is also used for children who have had unpleasant medical experiences or repeated stays in hospital. Occasionally this sedative can have the opposite effect and make a child more active and agitated.

In the operating theatre

Your child's anaesthetic will usually begin in the anaesthetic room, next to the operating theatre.

Many young children stay relaxed if a parent is with them. Parents are usually allowed to stay until the child is asleep. Babies and older children separate easily from parents and do not need a parent in the room. The anaesthetist will decide if the parent can stay for the start of the anaesthetic.

Watching your child go to sleep may be upsetting and stressful. Children often roll their eyes, twitch, snore and go limp very quickly. This is all perfectly normal. As soon as your child is asleep, you will be asked to leave so the anaesthetist can concentrate on looking after your child.

The anaesthetist is with your child for the entire time, monitoring and adjusting the amount of anaesthesia required for the procedure. A mix of special medications, gases and other techniques are used to ensure the child feels no pain and is asleep during the surgery. Medications are also used to give pain relief after surgery and to reduce nausea (feeling sick).

At the end of the procedure your child will be taken to a recovery area. A specially trained nurse monitors your child as they return to consciousness. One parent can come to the recovery area once your child is awake.

Your child will usually be away from you for longer than you expect, even with short operations. This time is spent preparing your child’s anaesthetic and helping them to wake from the procedure.

Some children wake up distressed even when they were calm before surgery. The distress is due to waking up in an unfamiliar place and the child will settle quickly with the help of their parents. This is most common in young children, but can also occur where a child has had multiple previous operations. Distress also occurs where the child or parent is anxious.

Your child will return to their ward once recovery is satisfactory.

Discharge after anaesthesia

Your child should be able keep down fluids before they leave the hospital. Eating and drinking too quickly can cause nausea and vomiting, often on the way home.

Your child should not be in excessive pain when they are discharged from hospital. If you think your child is in pain, please tell the staff.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Visit a GP after hours
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222

Child and Adolescent Health Service

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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