Anesthesia and Your Child

If your child has to have a minor or major surgery, doctors will use anesthesia. Anesthesia is a medicine that blocks pain or awareness during surgery. It is necessary for all minor and major surgeries (whether it is considered outpatient surgery or one that involves a hospital stay). Anesthesia is generally safe. In rare instances, there can be complications. Many people feel anxious about anesthesia and the surgery itself.

Path to improved health

As a parent, both you and your child may be anxious about anesthesia. Ask if an anesthesiologist (a physician who specializes in anesthesia) will supervise your child’s anesthesia during surgery. You and your child will meet with the anesthesiologist before surgery. He or she will monitor the effects of the anesthesia during and after the procedure. If your child is having a minor or major surgery, here’s what you need to know:

  • Day(s) before surgery: A nurse or other health care provider will call you the day (or several days) before surgery to give you instructions on how to prepare. Common requirements include no eating and drinking 8 to 12 hours prior to surgery, stopping certain medicines, following certain hygiene instructions, and information about when to report to surgery/where to go.
  • Day of surgery: The anesthesiologist will meet and examine your child. He or she will check your child’s vital signs (temperature, blood pressure, pulse, lab tests if needed). Additionally, the anesthesiologist will ask you and your child (if the child is old enough to answer) about their health history (including prior experience with surgery and anesthesia). This may include questions about other family members’ reaction to anesthesia and if your child has breathing problems (asthma). The anesthesiologist will discuss the reason for the surgery, any medicines your child is currently taking, answer your questions, and have you sign paperwork. A nurse will insert an IV into a vein in your child’s arm. The IV is filled with a saline solution to hydrate your child. This is standard practice with every patient. At this time, the anesthesiologist will discuss the type of anesthesia he or she plans to use. There are three types:
    • General anesthesia: This type of anesthesia puts you into a deep sleep, where you cannot feel or recall pain.
    • Spinal or epidural anesthesia: This type of anesthesia is injected into your spine and numbs sections of your body to block pain. You are awake during the procedure when this type of anesthesia is used.
    • Conscious sedation: This type of anesthesia makes you sleepy and relaxed, while blocking pain. However, you are generally aware of what is happening.
  • During surgery: During general anesthesia, the anesthesiologist will tell your child that he or she will place a mask over your child’s nose and mouth. The mask contains inhaled medicine that relaxes your child and makes them sleepy as they breathe. They will tell your child that they will fall asleep. They will ask your child to count backwards (or something else age appropriate) until they quickly nod off. The IV will be used to give your child anesthesia. If your child has had a bad reaction to anesthesia that makes them nauseous, the anesthesiologist will give them anti-nausea medicine at this time. When the surgery is over, the anesthesiologist will slowly stop the anesthesia to allow your child to wake up in a recovery room.
  • After surgery: Your child will be moved to a recovery room. Doctors and nurses will monitor them as the anesthesia wears off and they begin to wake up. Some of the things they will monitor are how long it takes your child to wake up, their vitals, whether they are nauseated, confused, or crying. You will be brought back to your child’s recovery room at this point. The hospital staff will tell you how to care for your child once you go home. They also will discuss post-surgery and signs of a reaction from anesthesia. You will be given a phone number to call with questions once you go home. You will likely get a call from the hospital the next day checking on your child. If your child is required to stay overnight or longer in the hospital, he or she will be moved to a room. If your child is going home the same day, they will be given a snack and/or drink to help them feel better. You will be asked to help them get dressed. Your child may sleep the rest of the day (at home or in the hospital).

Things to consider

Most of the time, children and adults have very few (if any) side effects from anesthesia. Some people experience mild nausea. Some people experience low blood pressure. Some people take longer than normal to wake up. In very rare instances, people of all ages experience anesthesia awareness. This occurs with general anesthesia. It’s when you are aware of what’s going on and can feel pain during surgery, but are unable to express it.

Certain factors can put a person at higher risk of problems with anesthesia. For children, this includes obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and sleep apnea.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What if I don’t know my family history and this is my child’s first operation? How can I lessen the chances of problems with anesthesia?
  • How long will it take my child to wake up?
  • Does anxiety affect how well the anesthesia works?
  • Does anti-nausea medicine prevent stomach upset?


American Society of Anesthesiologists, Children and Anesthesia

U.S. National Library of Medicine, The day of surgery for your child