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How do we prepare our toddler for surgery?
Q: Do you have helpful hints on preparing a 2½-year-old for surgery? He is going to have inguinal hernia surgery soon. We have taken the hospital tour.
Dina San Diego
A: Dina, you’ve made a good start by taking the hospital tour to prepare your 2½-year-old for surgery. Here are some more tips:

  • Explain the surgery at the level your child can understand. Explain what the problem is (a bulge from his tummy) and that the doctor will fix it. After the surgery, he’ll have a little line there rather than the bulge. Try to avoid explanations that might scare him like, “They’ll cut you open and sew you up with a needle.” Tell him that lots of kids have this and get fixed at the hospital.

  • Reassure him about any misunderstanding and fears he might have. He might think that something he needs will be taken out of him. Tell him that after the surgery he’ll be whole and even better than before. Reassure him that you’ll be there with him when he goes into surgery. Then a special doctor will give him medicine to make him sleepy so they can fix him, and he won’t feel anything. Tell him you’ll be there with him when he wakes up. Also reassure him that they’ll give him medicine so he won’t hurt.

  • Encourage him to ask questions and express any fears he might have. Answer his questions and reassure him to the best of your ability. Also tell him that the doctors and nurses will answer his questions.

  • Help him “practice” beforehand. Read a children’s book about preparing for surgery. Buy a doctor’s kit and let him practice taking his stuffed animal’s temperature, listening to its heart and breathing, putting on a bandage, etc. Encourage him to ask the stuffed animal how it’s feeling and reassure him that it’s doing well.

  • On the day of surgery, cuddle and reassure him as much as possible. Try to stay calm yourself. If you’re with your child until he goes into surgery and in the recovery room when he wakes up, it’ll seem to him as if you never left... If your child needs to stay overnight, try to sleep in the room with him. For prolonged stays, the hospital’s “child life specialists” usually have activities to help children play and make them feel comfortable.

Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician