Anaesthetic

Anaesthetic

When your child has a general anaesthetic, they are given medicine to make them unaware and unconscious. You have an important role in preparing your child for their anaesthetic so that their experience is as positive and non-frightening as possible.

Key points to remember

  • you have an important role in preparing your child for their anaesthetic so that their experience is as positive and non-frightening as possible
  • let your child tell you what they are expecting and answer their questions truthfully
  • avoid lying about the procedures even if you think it is reassuring
  • if you have any questions about the surgery, ask the surgeon or anaesthetist before the operation

Preparing your child for their anaesthetic

The information on this page aims to prepare you and your child for their anaesthetic. You have an important role in preparing your child so that their experience is as positive and non-frightening as possible

This information will help you explain to your child what to expect when they have an anaesthetic.

Let your child tell you what they are expecting and answer their questions truthfully. Avoid lying about the procedures even if you think it is reassuring. If you have any questions about the surgery, ask the surgeon or anaesthetist before the operation.

Who is an anaesthetist?

An anaesthetist is a doctor who has spent many years of additional training in anaesthetics after they graduate as a doctor.

The anaesthetist's role is to make sure your child is asleep during the surgery and to make sure your child experiences as little pain and discomfort as possible after the operation.

While your child is asleep, their anaesthetist will stay with them at all times during the operation and monitor them closely, making sure they remain safe and stable.

What is a general anaesthetic?

When your child has a general anaesthetic, they are given medicine to make them unaware and unconscious. This can be either by:

  • breathing anaesthetic gases through a mask, or
  • the injection of anaesthetic drugs

With the help of intensive monitoring, the anaesthetist will take care of your child throughout and wake them up afterwards.

Why must my child not eat or drink before surgery?

We know children don't like being hungry and thirsty but it is important that they have no food or drink. This is because there is a risk that food or fluid in the stomach can run back into the mouth and go down into the lungs during the anaesthetic. If you don't follow this rule, the operation may be cancelled or postponed in your child's best interest.

Different hospitals may have different fasting guidelines. Your local hospital will give you specific instructions. The following is an example of fasting guidelines: 

  • no milk or food for at least 6 hours
  • clear fluids are allowed up to 2 hours before surgery 
    (Clear fluids are those fluids which, when held to the light, are see-through. They include glucose-based drinks, cordials and clear juices. This does not include milk-based products or fluid with particles in it such as squeezed orange juice).

For babies less than 6 months of age:

  • clear fluids are allowed up to 2 hours before surgery
  • breastfeeding or formula is allowed up to 4 hours before surgery
  • food is allowed up to 6 hours before surgery

Regular medicines:

  • give your child all their regular medicines except where directed otherwise by your doctor

The preoperative examination

Your anaesthetist will want to know about:

  • when your child last had anything to eat or drink
  • any recent coughs or colds and fevers
  • any troubling behaviour before or after previous anaesthetics
  • any problems with anaesthetics in the family
  • abnormal reactions to medicines or allergies
  • any history of asthma, bronchitis, heart problems
  • any other medical problems
  • whether your child is on any medication
  • any loose teeth

Will I be allowed into the operating room with my child?

For most planned (elective) surgery, one parent/caregiver may be allowed to accompany their child, while they start to have the anaesthetic gases or drugs. The main reason for this is to help and support your child. The main concern of the medical team is the safety of your child. Because of this, if your child is less than 9 months old, is very unwell or the surgery is urgent, you may not be allowed in. The final decision will be made by your anaesthetist.

No photography is allowed as this may distract the team concentrating on your child.

What happens in recovery?

Every anaesthetised patient will spend time in the recovery room after an operation. Recovery room staff are specifically trained to care for children after an operation. The recovery room has a number of monitors similar to those in the anaesthetic room. Sometimes your child will need extra oxygen for a period of time after the anaesthetic.

The staff make sure that your child:

  • recovers safely from the effects of the anaesthetic
  • has had adequate pain relief
  • does not need drugs for nausea or vomiting
  • does not have excessive bleeding from the operation site

How will pain be treated?

The anaesthetist is an expert in pain management and will make sure your child's pain is treated properly.

Your child can have pain relievers (analgesic drugs) before, during and after the operation. The type and amount will be adjusted depending on your child and their surgery.

Often the anaesthetist will put local anaesthetic medicine in, to numb painful sensations from the area of the surgery. This can be in the form of:

  • infiltration into the skin, or
  • a nerve block, or
  • caudal anaesthesia, or
  • an epidural 

This is generally done when your child is asleep. Your anaesthetist will discuss this with you before surgery. 

When can we go home?

Over half of all surgery is now done on a same day basis where you come into hospital on the day of operation and leave on the same day. If this applies to your child, you can usually leave 1 to 4 hours after they wake from the anaesthetic. 

For more major surgery, the length of hospital stay is often longer and is determined by the surgical team. 

This page is based on a Starship Children's Health, Department of Paediatric Anaesthesia leaflet (January 2009): 'About your anaesthetic: Information for patients and their parents/caregivers'. Starship Foundation and the Paediatric Society of New Zealand acknowledge the cooperation of Starship Children's Health, Auckland District Health Board in making this information available to patients and families. 

This page last reviewed 29 October 2015.
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