How to Prepare a Toddler for Surgery

June 4, 2018


I hope you never have to send your toddler into surgery. On the one hand, Theo's surgery a few weeks ago was really hard (for me), and on the other hand, it was just like nothing really (more for him;) but nonetheless, I do think that some of the ways we prepared did make it easier on everyone.

If you find yourself with a child needing surgery, here are some tips for both toddler and parent to help prepare and have as good a surgery experience as possible.


Don't talk too much about it
Of course you know your child best, but in general, toddlers don't have a real grasp on time or abstract concepts like surgery. Because of this, it's not really possible for them to understand that one week from now, a doctor is going to take them away from their mama, give them shots (!) and cut them open for a good reason. I didn't talk with Theo about his surgery until two days before. 

Keep it simple
When I did talk about Theo's surgery with him, I just said casually that Friday morning we were getting up early to go to see Dr. Chan to fix his owie. 

Talk positively about the doctor
When we went for our pre-op consultation, I was so impressed at how well the pediatric surgeon, Dr. Chan, spoke to Theo. These people know what they are doing and our only job is to help our child trust them. Dr. Chan gave Theo a little toy as we left, so it was easy to bring up how nice Dr. Chan is, and how he is a daddy, and how we just like him so much over the ten days between consultation and procedure. I do think it made Theo happy to see him on the day of the surgery.


Bring your child's lovey or stuffy
Theo's favorite stuffed animal is "Blue" who Coco gave to him when we were still in the hospital after Theo was born. Blue is in all of Theo's first year photos and he chose to bring Blue along for the surgery. Blue was allowed to go into the operating room and stayed with Theo the whole time. It was oddly comforting for me to send a piece of home along and Theo loved having Blue there before and after. It really was a symbol of security and home. 

Respect your partner's coping mechanisms
This was a really hard one for me. I was coming undone and couldn't stop imagining the lovely Dr. Chan coming out and telling me Theo didn't make it. Honestly! J on the other hand, was really calm and preferred not to talk about it. He looked me in the eye and said that hernia surgery is a completely routine procedure and there was nothing to worry about. True. But I still couldn't help thinking that he didn't care because he wasn't freaking out. Not true. Finally, a friend, who's been through hernia and appendectomy surgery with her son, said to me, "Look! It's not going to make your life any better if he is losing it. Not a bit! He's calm, and he's right, and it will be over soon." Point taken.


Get there a few minutes early
It's not fun to feel rushed. Nor is it fun to have the nurses taking vitals saying things like, "We need to get them into room 4 quick. They were late." Ugh. Speaking from experience, because even though we were on time, the elevators were slow, the check-in line was long and then for whatever reason, we were told to just sit in the waiting room for 10 minutes and then they checked us in. Maybe it was unavoidable? But if I do this again, I'll plan to arrive early instead of on time.

Bring cash
What is it with hospital parking lots only taking cash? And if you decide to get coffee, it's just easier than fumbling with a card when you're on edge.

Take along more than a few distractions
Obviously your smart phone will be a good friend during this process. I had a few friends who knew what was going on and they all texted me, a very welcome distraction. But I also brought a book, my laptop and my journal. I was so grateful for Instagram during the surgery. All of the comments and messages buoyed my spirits. You just want to keep your mind from imagining the worst!


Wait somewhere else
The waiting room is not a fun place. It is filled with frantic, worried families and the announcements over the loudspeaker like, "Code three pediatrics. We have a code three anesthesia in pediatrics" put me in a panic. They'll want you there toward the time your child will be finishing up, but until that last ten minutes, I went down to the atrium area near emergency. It was peaceful and empty and beautiful.


Let yourself cry - after your child has gone in
Regardless of how serious or potentially perilous (or just routine) your child's surgery is, it is bound to bring up a lot of emotions. Life is precious. Moments like a surgery remind us of that with striking force. But it's also really hard to see families checking in who are obviously not there for a routine, or even first surgery. Seeing that can bring up a lot of emotions too. So, stay positive and fill your child with confidence and send them in strong. Then go let it all out and have a good cry. You'll be glad you did.


Be prepared for a grumpy kid
The nurse who prepped Theo told me that waking up from anesthesia is like having a really bad hangover. He was appropriately grumpy. 

And of course follow all of your doctor and hospital's instructions. Have you been through surgery with your child? What are your best tips?

Join the conversation!

  1. I really like these. So comprehensive really. Being on the medical side of things, I have to frequently remind myself that hospitals/surgeries/clinic visits are not day-to-day normalcy for most of the families I work with. I'm going to bookmark this for when friends and families ask for advice in similar situations. And who knows, it may prove to be helpful for me someday if I'm faced with letting my child go to surgery and the mom brain inevitably takes over the doctor brain. Thank you. And I'm glad all is well now.

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    1. I am so glad to hear this, Nicole! Thank you for taking the time to comment, and you're right - it's total everyday normalcy for the doctors and nurses. They were so relaxed and normal! ;) Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment! xoxo

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  2. I'm so glad he is okay! Just reading this post and thinking about it gave me anxiety - you're a warrior for actually going through it!

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    1. Thank you, Alexandra! It was so exhausting. One of the most mentally tiring things I've ever experienced. xo

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  3. Sweet baby boy. That little wrapped up hand a lovey. : (

    I have not had any surgeries with my kids but most recently a broken elbow. I busted out crying as they casted my little son; to see them in pain is excruciating. I also have had two hospitalizations with him as a 10 month old and again at 1 year (asthma like symptoms from colds). It still makes me anxious when he gets a bad cold with a cough. These are the things no one prepares you for when you are pregnant but they sure do make you come out so grateful on the other side.

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    1. He insisted on changing back into his 'fuzzy pajamas' once he came to! Asthma is so scary in kids. I hope it's under control enough that you don't have to go through hospitalization for it again. I agree it's the worst to see your kids in pain! And how true about being grateful on the other side. :)

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