Is Your Child Having Surgery? Anesthesiologists Break Down Everything Parents Need to Know

pediatric surgery
Graphics by: Anna Wissler

If your little one is facing an upcoming surgical procedure, you know you can never be too prepared for what lies ahead. As parents, we do everything we can to protect our kids. Oftentimes, that includes conducting CIA-level research on all things pediatric surgery. A big point of anxiety for many parents with an upcoming surgery, is how their child will react to anesthesia. Keeping that in mind, we’ve done the legwork for you by interviewing pediatric anesthesiologists who can answer all your pressing questions right here. 

For half a decade now, The Everymom has strived to be a go-to resource for whatever kind of motherhood moment you’re in: the good, the bad, the scary. We’ve put together a comprehensive guide with the help of the medical experts at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago’s Division of Pediatric Anesthesiology to answer all your questions regarding common surgical procedures. Below, pediatric anesthesiologists answers questions caregivers typically ask regarding surgery. Read on for their expert info! 

What are the different types of anesthesia used for children?

  • General Anesthesia: Your child is “asleep.” They’re in such a deep sleep that they will not move or feel pain during their procedure. Children can receive general anesthesia by inhaling it through their nose and mouth or through an IV (small plastic tube) that goes into a vein.
  • Regional Anesthesia: A specific, larger area of the child’s body is numbed. This is performed through an injection of medication near a cluster of nerves, rendering a large area of the body numb and unable to feel pain. In some cases, pain relief can be provided by a very thin catheter/tube placed near a nerve, which provides local anesthesia (numbing) to specific areas. You’ll receive instructions on how to manage this tube if your child is sent home with the catheter to provide prolonged pain relief.
  • Local Anesthesia: A single or select small area of your child’s body is numbed. This can be done with a spray, an ointment, or an injection around the area.


Which types of sedation are used for minor surgical procedures?

  • Nitrous Oxide: Commonly referred to as “laughing gas,” this anesthesia is odorless and given through a mask. It works quickly and wears off within a couple of minutes after the mask is removed.
  • Oral or Intranasal Sedation: Medicine can be given through the mouth (oral) or through the nose (intranasal) to help ease anxiety before a procedure or to achieve sedation or sleepiness for a short, non-painful procedure.
  • IV Sedation: Medicine to produce sleepiness is given in increasing amounts based on how long the procedure takes. This provides the option of administering additional medication if a procedure takes more time or becomes uncomfortable.



How is sedation different from general anesthesia?

Sedation is considered a “lighter” sleep. While under sedation, your child will be unaware of their surroundings but may respond to stimulation such as being tapped on the shoulder or hearing their name.


Are anesthesiologists present during the entire procedure?

A physician anesthesiologist administers anesthesia directly and/or directs an anesthesia care team that administers anesthesia. The physician anesthesiologist or another member of the anesthesia care team will be with your child throughout the entire surgery. Care team members include:

  • CRNAs (certified registered nurse anesthetists)
  • Pediatric anesthesiology fellows (anesthesiologists undergoing additional subspecialty training)
  • Trainees, including anesthesia residents


How do I prepare my child for anesthesia? 

  • Acknowledge your child’s fears and concerns.
  • Talk through what to expect in a calm, open way using words your child can understand.
  • Role-play. Practice acting out scenarios your child may encounter the day of surgery (checking vital signs and stating their name, birthday, and allergies).
  • Ask for help from a child life specialist on the day of surgery. They may have some extra tools to help explain things to your child in a developmentally appropriate way. A child life specialist may also help develop a plan and advocate for your child’s emotional needs.
  • Discuss something you can do together afterward to give them something to look forward to.


What should I avoid?

  • Explaining procedures that may happen under anesthesia.
  • Expressing any of your own concerns, fears, or strong emotions with your child (this could give them ideas of other things to worry about, and seeing you upset may make them upset).


What is the youngest age a child can receive anesthesia?

Anesthesia is very safe, and most children have no issues. Some research says that being sedated for a long time (greater than three hours) or numerous times can lead to brain development changes in children under three. Long-term studies are continuing to investigate this. Talk with your healthcare provider if your child is younger than three and you have concerns about them getting anesthesia.



How long does it take for anesthesia to wear off?

Following the procedure, children who receive general anesthesia or sedation go to the PACU (post-anesthesia care unit). In the PACU, healthcare providers monitor children as they recover from anesthesia. Parents are often able to join their child in the PACU. It’s normal for your child to be drowsy for an hour or so. Drowsiness may even last longer depending on the procedure. Some children feel sick to their stomach and may vomit or become fussy or disoriented as they recover from anesthesia. They may also have a dry or scratchy throat from the breathing device typically placed during general anesthesia.


Can a child sleep after anesthesia?

Quiet activity and rest are okay after anesthesia. Your child may want to sleep up to eight hours and may also be sleepy and irritable for the next 24 hours after anesthesia. After the procedure, you should be able to easily wake your child. They may be unsteady walking and/or crawling shortly after receiving anesthesia. A grown-up should always be with your child following anesthesia until they’ve returned to their normal state of awareness and coordination.


What’s the most common complication of anesthesia?

For most children, anesthesia is extremely safe. The risks are determined by the child’s medical condition, the type of procedure performed, and the type of anesthesia received. Please let your care team know about your child’s medical condition(s) and if there’s been a recent change in their state of health. Most commonly, an upset stomach and even vomiting can occur while recovering from anesthesia. Recent illnesses such as a cough, runny nose, or fever can increase the negative effects of anesthesia. Parents should talk to their healthcare provider about any questions or concerns.


What else should parents know about anesthesia?

Your child is going to be looked after with great care. Anesthesia is a closely-monitored and structured process, and your providers have undergone rigorous training to administer anesthesia and monitor children in the process. Looking at the big picture, this is just one day. Do your best to relax and go with the flow. Your outlook and your child’s impression of what’s going to occur can impact how they view medical settings going forward.

Want to learn more? Check out what the specialists from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago are sharing here.


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This post was in partnership with Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, but all of the opinions within are those of The Everymom editorial board. We only recommend brands we genuinely love.