Development FAQ: 18-24 months – Entertaining and Educating your Toddler

How do I prepare my daughter of 23mths for an overnight hospital stay?

My daughter, who is 23 months old, needs to go into hospital overnight for a small operation. I am able to stay with her all the time, but I was wondering how I might prepare her for this experience.

At this age, your daughter will have no concept of what a hospital is, unless she has been there before as an outpatient. The most important thing is not to let any of your anxieties pass to your daughter; toddlers are perceptive and can pick up tensions in adults.

Explain to your daughter in simple terms that you will be going together to the hospital. Tell her that in a hospital there are doctors and nurses who help people to get better. If you daughter has had painful symptoms from her condition, tell her that the doctor will make it better again. Explain to her that you will both sleep in the hospital and that other children will be there too.

Begin to prepare her about two weeks in advance by simply talking about the visit. Toddlers have a limited concept of time, but getting her used to the idea is what you are aiming for initially. If you can manage a visit to the ward beforehand, this can be helpful. If possible, show her the playroom, the toys and an empty bed or cot. Point out hospital staff, so she is familiar with people in uniform.

If an advance visit is not practical, look in your local library or bookshop for simple stories about hospital stays. There is no need to push the idea too much, but rather make these books part of her daily story session. Using toys to play hospitals is another good way to introduce the idea. You might choose to buy a child’s medical set, which contains items she may encounter, such as a stethoscope or thermometer. Play with her teddies or dolls and show her how these pieces of equipment work. The hope is that, once she is in hospital, the real equipment won’t seem so strange and can be a talking point while your daughter is examined.

The day before your stay, pack a case and let your daughter help; you may have been given a list from the ward. Tell her where you are going the next day. Most toddlers do understand phrases like, “After your next big sleep we are going to the hospital.” Let her see you pack your nightclothes and toothbrush so she is reassured that you will be staying. Put in one or two familiar toys, her favourite pyjamas and maybe a new pair of slippers she has helped choose. Also pack some books, a pad for drawing and some crayons, but don’t include any noisy toys or those with small pieces. Depending on the procedure and anaesthetic, your daughter may have to fast beforehand, but take her favourite drinking beaker and some healthy snacks for when she can eat and drink again. A fun straw will encourage her to drink. Hospitals are usually very warm and it is easy to get dehydrated.

Once your daughter has been admitted, make her cot welcoming with her toys. Get to know the nurse’s names and talk to them about the coming day. Many wards will assign a specific nurse to you for each shift. If you are in an area with other patients, introduce yourselves to them and their relatives. The more your daughter sees that you are at ease in the ward, the less likely she is to become apprehensive about the experience. Put on a happy face and keep talking about all the new things you can see. If you do have concerns or questions, try to engage her in some play activity before speaking to a member of staff.

Stay beside your toddler and offer reassurance when she is prepared for surgery. Even if she appears sleepy, stay close to her bed. Once the operation is over and she is back on the ward, help the nurses by keeping an eye on her and voice any concerns you may have. If you have prepared yourself for your daughter’s operation, you will know what to expect.

Once you are home, try to return to a normal routine as soon as possible. If your daughter is a bit clingy or quiet for a day or two, make plenty of time for one to one time with stories and cuddles. At this age most toddlers cannot express their feelings, but with an understanding adult close to them throughout the experience, they bounce back very quickly. Good luck.