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Preparing the Toddler for Surgery

What part about surgery is most stressful for a toddler?

Toddlers can benefit from preoperative planning, education, and explanations. This should take place a day or two before surgery since doing it too far in advance can cause 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 get my toddler ready for surgery?

These 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 healthcare provider is going to fix your arm." Don't say, "The healthcare provider 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's 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. Try not to leave the hospital if possible. If you must leave, let them know and that you will return as soon as you can.

  • Remember, too, to take care of yourself. Simplify your life during this time, and don't 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. 1997. Going to the Hospital. Penguin Young Readers Group.

Deborah Hautzig. 1985. A Visit to the Sesame Street Hospital. Random House Books for Young Readers.

Richard Scarry. 1995. A Big Operation (The Busy World of Richard Scarry). Aladdin Paperback.

Joanna Cole. 1990. The Magic School Bus: Inside the Human Body. Scholastic, Incorporated.

Anne Civardi. 2005. Going to the Hospital. Usborne Publishing Ltd.

Margret Rey, H.A. Rey. 2010. Curious George Goes to the Hospital. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Amy Finke RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Jonas DeMuro MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2018
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