Preparing the Toddler for Surgery

What part about surgery is most stressful for a toddler?

Photo of sleeping toddler, parent storking its head.

Toddlers can certainly benefit from preoperative planning, education, and explanations. This preparation should take place a day or two before surgery since preparation too far in advance can produce more anxiety. Recognizing what is stressful to your toddler while in the hospital can guide you in preparing him or her for the surgical experience. 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

How do I prepare my toddler for surgery?

The following suggestions will help you prepare:

  • Read books to your toddler about going to the hospital.

  • Interactive play with dolls and stuffed animals can help your child be more secure in the hospital environment. The child life department in your hospital can provide this service directly or provide guidance to parents preparing their children at home.

  • Give very simple explanations, and be careful of the words you use. 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."

  • Let your child decide which security item he or she wants to bring to the hospital. Include a favorite book and soothing music.

  • Stay with your child during hospitalization — your touch and voice will comfort him or her more than anything else. Let the nurses know about your child's usual schedule and his or her likes and dislikes.

  • Be patient with your child. It is normal for toddlers to cry and be fussy during this stressful time. Your child may be very clingy and become hard to comfort and console. It is not unusual for your child to regress and have angry outbursts and tantrums. Give a lot of love, and let your child know that you will be nearby.

  • Remember, too, to take care of yourself. Simplify your life during this time, and do not be afraid to ask for help from family and friends. Remaining positive and calm can help reduce your toddler's anxiety.

Helpful books for you and your child

Fred Rogers. 1988.Going to the Hospital. G. P. Putnam and Sons.

Deborah Hautzig. 1985.A Visit to the Sesame Street Hospital. Random House/Children's Television Workshop.

Richard Scarry. 1995. Big Operation: The Busy World of Richard Scarry. Aladdin Paperback.

Joanna Cole and Bruce Degar. 1989. The Magic School Bus: Inside the Human Body. Scholastic, Incorporated.

Anne Civardi and Michelle Bates. 2002. Going to the Hospital. Sagebrush Education Resource.