For parents of young children who need surgery: a look at anesthesia use in children

Kathryn (Kate) DelPizzo, MD
Kathryn (Kate) DelPizzo, MD

Assistant Attending Anesthesiologist, Hospital for Special Surgery
Clinical Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medical College

Effects of Anesthesia on Children

As the parent of a young child who needs surgery, you may be concerned about the effects of anesthesia on your child. Until recently, the common side effects of anesthesia in children (sleepiness, grouchiness) were believed to be mild and short-term, typically lasting only an hour or two. 

Recently, doctors and scientists have discovered that young children who receive anesthesia may also have longer-term side effects.  Research, so far performed only on animals, suggests that early exposure to common anesthesia medicines may be associated with behavioral problems or learning delays. Scientists call this “neurotoxicity,” and you may have read about the risk to children in the New York Times. Because research in animals cannot be applied directly to humans, at this time it is unclear whether or not early exposure to anesthesia leads to longer-term effects in humans. Scientists are performing studies in children, but definitive results are years away.  

In the meantime, doctors who use anesthesia in procedures for young children have to use their best judgment. The doctors at Hospital for Special Surgery are up to date with the latest research, understand your concerns and take them very seriously.

  • Whenever possible, surgery is delayed until after the age of 3 years.
  • Steps are also taken to reduce the amount of anesthesia a young child receives.
  • High doses of anesthetic agents may be minimized or eliminated by the use of regional anesthesia.

HSS Expertise in Regional Anesthesia

Use of regional anesthesia is recommended by experts to help minimize the risk of neurotoxicity.  Examples of regional anesthesia include epidurals, spinals and various nerve blocks that make extremities completely numb.The doctors at Hospital for Special Surgery have utilized these regional anesthesia techniques extensively for the last twenty-five years, and have performed them expertly in children of all ages. Our experienced anesthesiologists perform hundreds of regional anesthetics or “blocks” on children every month.  If surgery cannot be avoided in your young child, you can be confident that the HSS approach will minimize your child's exposure to anesthetic agents.

Finally, if you are preparing a young child for surgery, it is important to remember that your anesthesiologist will tailor the amount and type of anesthesia your child needs to ensure he or she is safe and comfortable before, during, and after the procedure.

See more information about Pediatric Regional Anesthesia at HSS.

For more information about anesthesia and children, visit


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