Preparing the Toddler for Surgery

Toddlers are very aware of the things going on around them. While they may not be able to express themselves through words and sentences, they do benefit from caregivers preparing them for surgery. Caregivers should begin preparing toddlers for surgery a day or two before the procedure, as talking about it too far in advance can produce more anxiety. Knowing what is stressful to toddlers while in the hospital can be helpful. Common stressors and fears in the hospital may include the following:

  • being left alone
  • having to stay in a strange bed or room
  • loss of comforts of home, family and possessions
  • being in contact with unfamiliar people
  • painful procedures
  • medical equipment that looks and sounds scary
  • feeling helpless

Preparing for Surgery

The most important thing to keep in mind when preparing any patient for surgery is to be honest. We encourage families to explain surgery in a way that is meaningful for toddlers through:

  • Reading books about going to the hospital.
  • Interactive play with dolls and stuffed animals. This type of play can help children feel more secure once at the hospital. The Child Life department can provide this service on the day of surgery in the preoperative unit or provide guidance to parents preparing their children at home.
  • Simple explanations and carefully selecting the words used to explain the procedure. For example, say, “The doctor is going to fix your arm.” Do not say, “The doctor is going to make a cut on your arm.”

Families can also help the patient cope with the stress of surgery by:

  • Letting the child decide which security item and books he or she wants to bring to the hospital.
  • Staying with the child as much as possible while in the preoperative unit. A parent or guardian’s touch and voice will comfort the patient more than anything else.
  • Letting the nurses know about the child’s usual schedule and his or her likes and dislikes.
  • Being patient with the child. It is normal for toddlers to cry and be fussy during this stressful time. The child may be very clingy and become hard to comfort and console. It is not unusual for toddlers to regress and have angry outbursts and tantrums.
  • Remaining positive and calm.

Preparation is Key

Caregivers can prepare themselves and the rest of the family by knowing:

  • As much as possible about the surgery. Children can tell when adults are worried. The more the adults in the family know, the better they will feel. They will also be better able to help explain what is happening to the patient and other children in the family.
  • It is normal for a child to require more attention before and after surgery. The child may have temper tantrums or be uncooperative. It is not unusual for a child to return to thumb-sucking or other behaviors they have outgrown. These types of behaviors will usually improve after the stress of the procedure has passed.
  • The importance of simplifying. The patient’s immediate family should try to simplify life during this time and shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help from friends and extended family members. Remaining positive and limiting the family’s stress can help reduce the child’s anxiety.