Having your little one go through surgery is no fun for any member of the family. When my youngest daughter was 2 (almost 3) she had to have open neck surgery and tonsil removal for a birth defect. We had known for quite some time she would need surgery at some point, but we found out 10 months before the surgery that it was happening for sure. I walked out of that first appointment with the surgeon determined to make it as easy on all of us as possible. Of course I googled, read, asked friends and family and overloaded myself with information. Her condition was so rare it was almost impossible to find anything specific to what she would experience. Luckily we had an amazing group of people at the Stollery Children’s Hospital who were there to answer any questions we had, and put our minds at ease. Preparing her for surgery was our job though, and while I know that every kid is different, this is what worked for us.
Read books to them. One of the first things I did was buy/borrow some children’s books that explain surgery in kid terms. I read the books to her older sister at the same time, so they could talk about it together. We read a few, but her favorites (and mine) were Franklin Goes to the Hospital and Little Critter: My Trip to the Hospital.
Be honest. This was the biggest one for us. Before her surgery she needed to get blood work done as well as a CT scan. I was honest about the reason we were going to the hospital every time. I told her it would hurt a bit when she had blood taken, but just for a second. I told her that her throat might hurt when she woke up after surgery, but it wouldn’t hurt forever. We showed her pictures of CT scan machines and explained exactly what would happen and what it would sound like. Talk it through, a lot. Answer every question they have honestly, and explain everything that’s happening. Explain that doctors and nurses are just awesome people who they can trust.
Practice. Months before her surgery I bought her a toy doctor’s kit so we could practice a few things she would have to do. We practiced with a toy syringe before her blood work and we put the toy mask over her mouth and nose to show her what the surgeon would do in the operating room. Once we were in the operating room all the big machines and shiny things were much less scary. When they put the mask over her face she was more than ready, the only nervous one in that room was me!
Make them feel comfortable. Most hospitals will let your child bring something to cuddle before and after surgery, whether it’s their favorite blanket, lovey, stuffy (whatever you call it) bring it! I made a point of letting her help me pack a little bag, her favorite cuddly toy, her favorite blanket, slippers (a must have for the hospital floor) and cozy pajamas for before and after the hospital clothes. It helped her feel more comfortable in a new place.
Prepare yourself. Kids know when we’re nervous or stressed out, so make this time as easy on yourself too. Bring books, slippers, your own blanket, charge your phone, get a coffee, try to relax. Whatever will help you get through that day. I walked around the hospital with my husband and our other daughter, explored as much as we could, ate food, read my e-reader, ordered a chai tea latte and made myself as comfortable as possible.
Prepare your other kids too. This doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but I have another daughter who was 4 at the time and spent the entire day of surgery at the hospital with us. Making sure she was also comfortable, and well informed was so important. She was worried about her sister, so we made sure to explain how she’ll look and act when she comes out of surgery. It can be alarming to them to see their sibling not acting like themselves, it’s important they know it’s normal and temporary.
It’s always important to listen to the surgeon about aftercare, take it easy and continue to explain what’s going on. We spent a night at the hospital and left the next afternoon. She was in pain, so I kept up with her medications and snuggled lots. We watched movies in bed, ate a lot of apple sauce, drank a lot of water and tried to keep her as calm as possible (for a two year old). She recovered from her surgery faster than expected and was back to her normal self soon after. It’s been just over a year and she barely remembers it now, and any memory she’s ever brought up was a positive one. Every kid is different, and some won’t respond as well to some of these things. Do what works for you and your family. One thing I’ve taken from the whole experience is that kids are SO much stronger than we think they are.