General anaesthetic and surgery factsheet


When your child has surgery, they will be looked after by a doctor called an anaesthetist.

An anaesthetist is the doctor that makes sure your child is: 

  • asleep during surgery 
  • comfortable and getting pain medication 
  • breathing well. 

The anaesthetist will do this by giving your child a combination of medicines called a general anaesthetic.

 Before the procedure

You will be contacted by the hospital before surgery. They will give you instructions about: 

  • what time to arrive 
  • whether your child will stay overnight or go home after the procedure, also known as day surgery
  • what to bring 
  • when your child should start fasting. 

Fasting is when your child stops eating and drinking before surgery. It is important to have an empty stomach when having an anaesthetic because there is a risk that food and drink can come back up from the stomach and go into the lungs. This is called aspiration. Aspiration is life-threatening. 

Generally, fasting before anaesthetic means: 

  • no solid food, milk, or infant formula for six hours before anaesthesia 
  • clear fluids that you can see through, like water, up to 1 hour before anaesthesia. 

If your child is breastfeeding as their main source of food, they will need to stop feeding 4 hours before the surgery. 

If your child has infant formula as their main source of food, this is considered a solid food.  

 During the procedure

Anaesthesia and the anaesthetist 

You and your child will meet the anaesthetic team on the day of surgery. Before surgery, your child will have an intravenous (IV) cannula inserted in their arm. The IV cannula is where the medication is given. 

Your child might be given some medication through their IV cannula before they have their general anaesthesia to help them relax. 

Your child will then be taken through to the anaesthetic room. The anaesthetic team will usually give them a mask and may ask them to count as they breathe and start to fall asleep.

Anaesthetic can also be given through the IV cannula while they are breathing with the mask. 

If you have any questions, make sure you ask the anaesthetist before the surgery. 

Medical equipment 

Once your child is asleep and the anaesthetic has started, the anaesthetic team sets up some equipment to make sure the right steps are being taken and your child is comfortable and safe.  

This equipment can include: 

  • monitors - used to check signs that your child is doing well 
  • sensors – used to check different signs in the body like blood pressure, temperature and breathing 
  • cannulas – tubes inserted to give fluid and medication 
  • central lines – a longer type of cannula that goes up to the heart 
  • a breathing tube – inserted to make sure your child has oxygen and is breathing well. 

 After the procedure

After surgery, your child will be taken to the intensive care or recovery unit to wake up. 

When your child wakes up, they might feel dizzy, confused, and sick. This is normal. 

Your child will still have their cannula and other tubes and monitors attached. This is so the nurses can make sure they are recovering well. 

The medicine being used to keep your child comfortable will continue while they are in recovery or intensive care. The intensive care team will also use medicines to keep your child a bit relaxed and calm. This is not the same as the general anaesthetic, but it will help keep your child comfortable. 


The safety of general anaesthesia

General anaesthesia is very safe. Anaesthetists are highly trained specialist doctors who:

  • make sure the anaesthesia is effective and safe for your child 
  • continuously check your child for any complications before, during and after the surgery
  • make sure your child is breathing well during the surgery.

Helping your child prepare for surgery

It is normal to be worried about your child having surgery. Your child may also feel anxious about the surgery, so it is important to support them to feel calm.

You can help your child prepare for surgery by:

  • talking to them about the anaesthetic and surgery in simple words
  • explaining the steps of the anaesthetic so they know what is going to happen
  • making sure that you, or another trusted adult, is there when they go to sleep and when they wake up
  • asking the doctors and nurses any questions you have
  • encouraging your child to ask any questions they have.

Children over 6 months of age may be able to have a parent or carer in the anaesthetic room with them while it starts. Talk to your child’s anaesthetist about whether this can be organised.

Last updated Tuesday 30th January 2024


This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024