The Mighty Logo

7 Ways to Prepare Your Toddler for Major Surgery

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Toddlers are a challenging balance between overwhelming them with too much information and sheltering them too much by not trusting their ability to process information.

These seven things have helped my daughter cope with major surgery.

1. Decide on your words — words matter to toddlers.

Don’t try to combine commonly used words to mask the severity. We took off near the holidays so we used the word “hiaitus.” We didn’t want her confusing normal school breaks or holidays with the surgery. We used “journey” for the actual time of pre-op, surgery and hospitalization. Use positive words when referring to the procedure (protecting the brain, strengthening the skull or whatever applies to your child). Once you decide, communicate it to those your kid sees the most: relatives, friends and daycare providers. Don’t be afraid to correct them. Shut down discussions of fears or complications within earshot of your little one — they pick up the stress and concerns.

2. Let them learn at their level.

We bought some books to get used to the concept of hospital and the inner workings of the body. Toss the books into the pile and don’t force them if your child does not seem interested. For the long books we just read parts of the pages. Melissa and Doug also has a wooden magnetic human body playset that is great for supervised toddlers to ask- what’s that?

Best books we found were:

3. Help them understand time.

Talk in terms of “sleeps” if it is fewer than 10, “It is four more sleeps until journey when we go to the hospital.” Paper chains are amazing for count-downs, too. Each night at the same time we remove a ring so it gets closer to going home, going back to school, whatever you are counting down for. Let your little one remove the ring at the same time each day and make it a ritual.

4. Find connections to their normal daily lives.

If your child attends school, a little photo album of our little one’s friends at school, teachers and directors lets them talk about the people they miss. It’s a way to stay connected while enforcing isolation at home. We also borrowed “jobs” or toys from the classroom so my child could mimic class while at home for familiarity.

5. Visit the hospital.

The first visit can literally be as quick as a drive by to say, “this is where you will be taking your journey.” Call your hospital’s number and ask the switchboard operator for the “child life specialist.” Talk to the child life specialist and ask for a tour, explain your kid’s temperament, and let them explain what will be happening the day of surgery. We choose to do this a few days before pre-op workups to give it some time to settle in.

6. Introduce changes ahead of time.

We rearranged the living room and play room furniture weeks ahead of time (including the new train table) and included her in the assembly and changes. We introduced the toddler pillow (to keep her post-surgery head elevated) a few weeks before. We tossed the new clothes with buttons (to make it over the head) into the rotation early. Give them ownership in the changes and time to absorb them so when they come home, things feel “normal.”

7. Hold space for your little one.

This may be the hardest one — we want our kids to be happy and know they are safe and loved. Let them also express their fears, concerns or emotions. Just sitting there while your little one whimpers or cries and acknowledging they are scared, sad or missing friends is hard. Take a break from reassuring them to just let them express feelings and be heard which will let them also process their emotions. Then after getting it all out when they are snuggled down on your chest resting, reassure them as long as you can.

We wondered once the physical healed would the emotional impacts subside? The terror at the toilet flush in an industrial setting that looked like the hospital room, the whimper at walking into a doctor’s office, and the wariness you wish as a parent you could erase. And the answer came months after post-op. Yes, she did recover and loves her doctors again.

Getty image by kiankhoon

Originally published: January 9, 2019
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home