Anaesthetic

Anaesthetic

When your child has a general anaesthetic, an anaesthetist will give them 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 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 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

You have an important role in preparing your child so that their experience is as positive 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.

What does an anaesthetist do?

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. They also 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 asleep and safe.

What is a general anaesthetic?

When your child has a general anaesthetic, the anaesthetist gives the medicine to make them unconscious. This can be either by:

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

The anaesthetist will closely monitor and take care of your child throughout the procedure. They will also wake them up afterwards.

Why must my child not eat or drink before surgery?

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 encouraged 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
  • breastmilk is allowed up to 3 hours before surgery
  • 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

Can I go into the operating room with my child?

For most planned (elective) surgery, one parent/caregiver can usually 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 medical team’s main concern 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. Your anaesthetist will make the final decision. No photography is allowed as this may distract the team concentrating on your child.

What happens in recovery?

Your child 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 children need extra oxygen for a while 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 extra medicine for nausea or vomiting
  • does not have excessive bleeding from the operation site

How will they manage my child’s pain?

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

Your child can have pain relievers (analgesic drugs) before, during and after the operation. The type and amount will depend 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 generally happens when your child is asleep. Your anaesthetist will discuss this with you before surgery. 

When can we go home?

Over half of all surgery happens 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, your child may need to stay in longer. The surgical team will decide make the call on how long your child needs to stay.

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 24 September 2018.
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