When Your Baby Needs a Test, Procedure, or Surgery

(Ages newborn to 12 months)

Your baby is too young to understand what is going on right now – but you are likely scared and upset by what's happening. And your little one is quite capable of sensing your unease and stress. For you, then, being prepared for the test or procedure will help you stay calm and supportive when your child needs you.

What your child understands

In the first 8 months of life, infants rely on others to meet their needs for touch and comfort, food, and sleep. In later infancy, babies begin to develop a fear of strangers and become more aware of separation from their caregivers.

Nurse checking newborn

Crying is a normal response in infants to being separated from a parent. Crying doesn't necessarily mean that your baby is in pain or uncomfortable.

Talk with your baby's health care provider about being present as much as possible for the test or procedure. Child development experts say it's best to keep to a minimum the amount of time your child is separated from you at this age. Make sure your child has a blanket or stuffed animal to help soothe him or her for those times when you must be apart.

Here are other stress-reducing ideas for your baby:

  • Pacifiers

  • Swaddling for very young babies

  • Rocking

  • Music

  • Speaking in a low, soothing voice

  • Visual stimulation, such as a book, picture, or toy

If hospitalized, infants and young toddlers (8 months to 2 years) may return to more immature behaviors and seem to lose the strides that had been made in their development. This is normal and is usually only a temporary situation for short hospital stays.

Keep in mind that restraints may be used during a test or procedure to help keep your child safe and to allow the test to be done properly.

Questions to ask your baby's doctor

You are the most important member of your baby's health care team – because no one knows your baby better than you! Let your baby's health care provider know that you want to be a part of the treatment process.

Here are questions to ask before the test, procedure, or surgery:

  • How long will the test, procedure, or surgery take?

  • What are the risks involved?

  • Will your child feel pain or discomfort?

  • Will restraints be used?

  • What outcomes have you seen with this medical condition?

  • Who in addition to you is involved? Can I meet the health care team?

  • What type of medical equipment will be used?

  • What does this equipment look, sound, and feel like?

  • Does my baby have to go without eating or drinking beforehand? If so, for how long?

  • Will my baby be awake for the procedure or surgery?

  • What should I expect just before the procedure?

  • What do you see as my role?

  • Will I be allowed to be with my baby during and after the procedure or surgery?

  • How long will my baby have to stay in the hospital?

  • How many follow-up visits do you anticipate?

After the test, procedure, or surgery

  • Did my baby experience pain? If so, how long is it expected to last?

  • How is this discomfort or pain managed?

  • What medications are prescribed for my baby? What are the side effects?

  • If anesthesia was used, how long will it take to wear off?

  • How should I expect my baby to act now?

  • Do I have to restrict my baby in any way or prevent him or her from doing any activities?

  • How long can I anticipate until my baby is "back to normal?"

Easing your stress

When your child is sick, you may feel overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. Here are some things you can do to ease your stress:

  • Learn everything you can about your baby's illness and treatment.

  • Establish a trusting relationship with your child's health care provider.

  • Visit the hospital, if your baby has to be hospitalized:

    • Take a tour.

    • Get any resources available.

    • Meet the staff members who will be involved in your child's care.

  • Check out support groups so you can talk to other parents who have been through what you are facing.

  • Lean on friends and family. Have at least one other person with you during the procedure or surgery, if possible.

  • Keep a diary of your thoughts and feelings.

  • Try exercise and relaxation techniques:

    • Meditation

    • Yoga

    • Tai chi

    • Positive visualization

    • Controlled breathing

If you are having difficulty controlling your stress, talk with your health care provider immediately. Your baby needs you!

Child life program

Many hospitals have child life programs. A child life specialist is usually part of the health care team. When working with you and your child, this specialist can help you:

  • Understand the medical information presented to you so you have accurate descriptions of what will be done for your child

  • Enhance your ability to support your child, as well as help you and your family cope with and adjust to your child's illness

  • Decrease your child's overall anxiety and perception of pain