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How to Prepare Your Toddler For Surgery Like a Boss

Despite all of this mental anguish, if you put some effort in, there are some ways that you can make surgery a better experience for your young child. Here is what worked for me in my situation. Take any of it that can possibly help you and share with anyone in this same situation.
01/21/2016 12:53pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Toddler boy holding on to father's legs

You know, back before I ever blogged, my husband was like, "You prepared Natalia so well for her eye surgery, you should tell people how you did it." So, since it is kind of rare for anyone to say anything like that about my parenting (except for "how do you get them all on the same nap schedule," to which my answer is "sleep training and never ever ever letting them miss a nap ever even on dance recital day during which my 4 year old slept in the car with her blanket at her appointed nap time during the drive"), I figured I would write a post about it.

My oldest child has strabismus like I did when I was a kid, except hers is worse. We see Dr. Avallone in Maryland, who is the best pediatric ophthalmologist in the world, for real, everyone loves him, it's like a cult. (Just wanted to get that in there in case anyone else's kid in this area needs an eye doctor.) She needed outpatient eye surgery on both eyes when she was 2 1/2. Here are some pictures:

If you are a parent whose child is undergoing surgery for the first time, and it is planned surgery, you are probably going to be very anxious and upset in the weeks or days leading up to the surgery. This is natural. I myself cried a lot when I was told that my daughter needed surgery, because of a few things:

- She wouldn't be able to eat or drink for the whole morning before the surgery, which made me anxious and upset for her, because like most toddlers, she ate and drank immediately upon waking up all the time.

- The doctors told me that all kids cry going into surgery, when they see the surgical team in their masks and they are on their gurney. They said kids get scared even going into the hospital. I did not want her to be terrified of this surgery or any later surgeries (because they said many kids need another one).

- I thought the whole situation was my fault because I saw her eyes turning in for a while, but I thought it was nothing and would correct itself like mine did. Nobody else, not the pediatrician or my husband or anyone, mentioned anything, so I also thought I was crazy. Eventually, though, I brought her to an eye doctor, who immediately said she had strabismus. If I had brought her to an eye doctor sooner, she may have just needed patching. (There is going to be some equivalent of parent feeling guilty for most surgeries on kids, I am willing to bet, which is why I include this.) So I was even more upset because I felt guilty.

- There are risks with anything, both for whatever the surgery is for (here, of course I worried she would be blinded), and general risk of not waking up after anesthesia or having a bad reaction to it.

Despite all of this mental anguish, if you put some effort in, there are some ways that you can make surgery a better experience for your young child. Here is what worked for me in my situation. Take any of it that can possibly help you and share with anyone in this same situation.

1. I didn't tell anyone about her surgery, especially if they would say anything in front of her. So no extended family or friends except a few people knew she would be going in for surgery. This way I could control the flow of information and what my daughter overheard.

2. From the very first moment in the eye doctor's office, as soon as they said "surgery," I made sure to watch my expression and my tone and I said, "Oh wow! You're going to get to see the hospital!"

3. I kept talking up how fun this day would be, without lying or being patronizing. I told her that she would have many special activities and toys, and would get to see the hospital, and would get to spend the morning with Mommy and Daddy. To be honest, it was a fun day for her, as I will discuss, with the exception of the pain part, which was only 1-2 hours of a whole day.

4. Closer to the day, like a day before, I also said she wouldn't be able to eat or drink before the surgery, but it would be ok because we would be doing so many fun things. I also told her that afterwards, she would be sleepy and her eyes would hurt. She seemed okay with everything I said. It was all said in a matter of fact voice and a neutral tone and expression.

5. We learned all about the hospital and what surgeons wear and what everything looks like, with books and online.

6. We put our 1-year-old in daycare early that morning so we could be with our daughter and not be also dealing with a baby.

7. Nobody was allowed to eat or drink in front of my daughter that morning except the baby. My husband and I ate secretly. This way she didn't get hungry from seeing us eat.

8. From the minute my daughter woke up I was ON like it was her birthday plus my birthday plus I just won a million dollars. It was all super fun and super upbeat. I bought a lot of cheap toys and books that she had never seen before. She also got to take Real Bear, which never leaves her bed nevermind goes outside, because if it is lost, it is irreplaceable (even on EBay, I looked).

My daughter is both smart and anxious and she had ZERO anxiety. She did not know that there was any reason to be anxious because nobody had told her. This is the part of my story that can be generalized to all parenting situations: CHILDREN ONLY BECOME ANXIOUS ABOUT NEW THINGS IF THEIR PARENTS OR SOMEONE ELSE CONVEYS ANXIETY (read more about this here). There is no evolutionary reason for a small human to get anxious about going into a hospital if she has no experience with anyone showing anxiety about this. In contrast, research does show that there is a natural tendency to get anxious about proximity to large predator-type animals or snakes. But hospitals, no.

9. Every time my daughter looked hungry or uncomfortable, we did a new activity (stickers, iPad app, book, coloring) or took a walk around the floor, when they let us.

10. The staff told us to have the parent who would not cry walk into the room with her for surgery. This was me, because I was so invested in not making her scared. So, we went into the room, and my daughter already recognized everyone's masks from the books we had read about hospitals. She did not cry. She did not get upset. She also knew what the anesthesia mask was that they would put on her face. She didn't get upset when they put on her mask either. And the team told me it was the first time that they saw a child not be upset in the surgery room.

11. Then, the doctors asked me to sing a song to her as she went to sleep, but I was so psychologically drained that I literally couldn't think of any song except Twinkle Twinkle, and that ends in like three seconds. So, because he saw her teddy bear, the anesthesiologist sang her Teddy Bear Picnic, the whole thing, all the stanzas. Which makes him the best person in the world.

12. When she was asleep I burst into tears. Dr. Avallone gave me a hug.

13. Natalia woke up and was crying and disoriented from the anesthesia. But she was, pretty much, fine!

14. Then, after the doctor had already checked her, they kept making us wait for paperwork or whatever else, and I became the proverbial squeaky wheel and got us the hell out of there earlier by continuing to nicely (?) harass the hospital administrative staff until they said we could go and just bring whatever paperwork to our follow up appointment with the doctor. Score.

15. The next day she went to preschool.

Anyway, here is the real kicker: Natalia's eyes were better after surgery, but we had monthly appointments with the eye doctor to monitor her. Then the doctor thought she might need surgery again because her eyes grew again and were crossing, but they tried patching her first. So, get this, after some patching, her eyes stopped crossing. But she was DISAPPOINTED because she wouldn't get to have another surgery! I take credit for that. Not only doesn't she fear surgeries or hospitals (and she is a child who got a flu shot and cried afterwards for hours and who at age 2 had a phobia of a SHOWER CAP*), but she WANTED another surgery because it was such a fun time, through the miracle of suggestibility. (Here, I discuss more ways to brainwash your kid to be happy.)

So in addition to providing you with some concrete ways to make sure your child gets through surgery with less anxiety, you can also use this post as proof positive that if something is very important, you as a parent have almost limitless positive influence over your child, especially in terms of making them confident and unafraid. They read your emotions and if you seem happy and unworried, they will be too. Watch my favorite movie, Life is Beautiful, which makes a beautiful metaphor out of this idea. Conversely, if you seem anxious, your kids will be too. I have made it my personal life's work to not transmit my anxious tendencies to my kids, and so far, I'm doing well. Now I can focus on not transmitting all my other less than ideal qualities. Life, just one thing after another.

Please share this with anyone who is worried about a child's surgery, or anyone whose child shows fear of doctors, school, or anything really. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Thinks That Teddy Bear Picnic Singing Anesthesiologist is An Awesome Human Being.

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* We worked on this via drawing permanent marker pictures on the shower cap and having it make funny voices. Phobia cured in 1 day. I am not awesome; kids' brains are awesome, and highly plastic.

This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.