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When Your Child Needs Surgery: Anesthesia

Your child is having surgery. During surgery, your child will receive anesthesia. This is medicine that causes your child to relax and fall asleep, and not feel pain during surgery. See below for more information about different types of anesthesia. Anesthesia is given by a trained doctor called an anesthesiologist. A trained nurse called a nurse anesthetist may also help. They are part of your child’s operating team.

Types of anesthesia

Your child may receive any of the following types of anesthesia during surgery.

  • General anesthesia. This is commonly used for major types of surgery. It may be given in gas form that is breathed in through a mask. Or it may be given in liquid form in a vein through an IV (intravenous) line. Sometimes both methods are used. General anesthesia causes your child to fall asleep and not feel pain during surgery.

  • Regional anesthesia. This may be used for certain surgical procedures. Part of the body is numbed by injecting anesthesia near the spinal cord or nerves in the neck, arms, or legs. Your child may remain awake or sleep lightly.

  • Monitored anesthesia care (monitored sedation). This is often used for surgery that is short, and that doesn't go deep into the body. Medicines called sedatives that help your child relax may be given by IV through a vein. A local anesthetic (numbing medicine) may also be used. Your child may stay awake or sleep lightly. But your child will likely not remember anything about the surgery.

  Before surgery

  • Follow all food, drink, and medicine instructions given by your child’s healthcare provider. This often means that your child can have nothing to eat or drink for a set number of hours before surgery.

  • On the day of surgery, you and your child will meet with an anesthesiologist who will go over with you the type of anesthesia your child will receive during surgery. You may need to sign a consent form to allow your child to receive anesthesia.

What to tell the anesthesiologist

For your child’s safety, tell the anesthesiologist if your child:

  • Had anything to eat or drink before surgery.

  • Has any allergies.

  • Is taking any medicines.

  • Has had any recent illnesses.

During surgery

  • Anesthesia may be started in a room called an induction room. Or it may be started in the operating room.

  • You may be allowed to stay with your child until they are asleep. Check with your child’s anesthesiologist.

  • During surgery, the anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist controls the amount of anesthesia your child receives. Special equipment is used to check your child’s heart rate, blood pressure, and blood oxygen levels.

  • Anesthesia is stopped once surgery is complete. Your child will then wake up.

  After surgery

  • Your child is taken to a postanesthesia care unit (PACU) or a recovery room.

  • You may be allowed to stay in the PACU or recovery room with your child. Every child reacts differently to anesthesia. Your child may wake up disoriented, upset, or even crying. These reactions are normal and usually pass quickly.

  • When ready, your child will be given clear liquids after surgery. They will slowly be given solid foods and return to a normal diet.

  • The surgeon will tell you if your child needs to stay longer in the hospital after surgery. If an overnight stay is needed, you’ll often be told ahead of time.

  • Before your child leaves the hospital, you will be given instructions to follow at home. Be sure you understand these instructions and follow them once your child leaves the hospital.

When to call your child's healthcare provider

Call your child's healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • A sore throat that doesn’t go away

  • Post-surgery pain gets worse

  • Fever (see "Fever and children" below)

Fever and children

Use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Don’t use a mercury thermometer. There are different kinds and uses of digital thermometers. They include:

  • Rectal. For children younger than 3 years, a rectal temperature is the most accurate.

  • Forehead (temporal). This works for children age 3 months and older. If a child under 3 months old has signs of illness, this can be used for a first pass. The provider may want to confirm with a rectal temperature.

  • Ear (tympanic). Ear temperatures are accurate after 6 months of age, but not before.

  • Armpit (axillary). This is the least reliable but may be used for a first pass to check a child of any age with signs of illness. The provider may want to confirm with a rectal temperature.

  • Mouth (oral). Don’t use a thermometer in your child’s mouth until he or she is at least 4 years old.

Use the rectal thermometer with care. Follow the product maker’s directions for correct use. Insert it gently. Label it and make sure it’s not used in the mouth. It may pass on germs from the stool. If you don’t feel OK using a rectal thermometer, ask the healthcare provider what type to use instead. When you talk with any healthcare provider about your child’s fever, tell him or her which type you used.

Below are guidelines to know if your young child has a fever. Your child’s healthcare provider may give you different numbers for your child. Follow your provider’s specific instructions.

Fever readings for a baby under 3 months old:

  • First, ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead: 100.4°F (38°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 99°F (37.2°C) or higher

Fever readings for a child age 3 months to 36 months (3 years):

  • Rectal, forehead, or ear: 102°F (38.9°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 101°F (38.3°C) or higher

Call the healthcare provider in these cases:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher in a child of any age

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher in baby younger than 3 months

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under age 2

  • Fever that lasts for 3 days in a child age 2 or older

Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Maryann Foley RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Pat F Bass MD MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2020
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