5 Surgery Prep Tips for Toddlers that “Carry-on” to a surprising environment – the airport!


My first rotation during my child life internship was in the day surgery unit of a large free standing children's hospital. It was six weeks long and was followed by another 9 weeks in other areas of the hospital. No matter what area I was observing, learning and practicing, child life specialists were key professionals apart of the team to help ease anxiety and promote positive coping with the unfamiliar and intimidating hospital environment. 

In my first employed position as a child life specialist, I co-facilitated the pre-surgical tour program for children and families in addition to being the primary specialist on the general surgical unit and supporting all units on Sundays.

In both of these experiences, I provided preparation through play, medical education through hands-on exploration of real medical equipment, tips, and tours for many families. Well, wouldn't you know, life led me back to work at the same hospital I interned at. While I provided support throughout the inpatient and a number of outpatient areas, it's interesting how my path or flight came full circle when I took the day surgery child life position. A round trip, if you will! Okay, I will stop. 

My point is, I've helped a lot of young children and their families navigate through the unfamiliar and unnerving experience of a surgical visit - prior to, during and afterwards. 

As a parent of a 2 and 1 year old who has flown more than once with them alone (+ with layovers!), I wanted to share some tips of how I've made our air travel experiences manageable and fun! You can do it!

1.   Use pretend play and story time to prepare young children for new experiences or unfamiliar and stimulating environments, like the hospital or airport, to help them understand what to expect to see, hear, and feel during this experience. Roll Play!

Pretend play to prepare young children for the airport #doseofplay #travelingwithkids #travelingalonewithkids #howtotravelalonewithkids #tipstopreparekidsforairtravel #flyingwithtoddlers #preparation #pretendplay #childlife #parenthood

2.      Highlight the positives, especially when there might be some challenges like mobility restrictions, to help them cope and prepare them for behavior expectations.  

“After the doctor fixes you, you will have a sleepover at the hospital. You will lay in a special bed while you get better. You will still get to watch movies, play with toys, or color in bed!”

“On the airplane, you will sit in a chair and wear your seatbelt to keep your body safe until our plane stops moving and the captain {airplane driver} tells us we can take it off.”

3.      Pack favorite comfort items. For my nearly 3-year-old, it, this is her Aden-Anais “night, night,” her favorite small plush of the week or one of her fisher-price little people. For our 1 year old, it’s mainly his pacifier, “nigh, night” and myself (or my husband) if he’s tired.

4.      Use simple language to help ease fears. On a recent flight, my daughter became very tense upon take off, but was quickly calmed when I grabbed her hand and said “I got you safe.” It’s something I’ve learned and admired hearing Garrett Gee of “The Bucket List Family” say to his two young children as they face their fears. Whether it was to encourage them to bravely run up to a flock of birds, take on a big slide, to even dipping feet into shark infested water (in the cage), they really seemed to show so much love and trust for their father’s intentions that they were able to face their fears. I saw this to my daughter when I’m encouraging her to be brave in different situations.

On our return home flight, my heart just about burst when she tensed up and said “hold my hand, get me safe.” It was easily one of the sweetest parenting moments. Not only was it just utterly adorable, but it showed me that what I did and said truly helped her in her moment of fear. She identified it and was able to communicate how I could help support her when she needed it. All possible at 2 years old. 

5.      Hide your child’s favorite toys for at least a few days before! I believe this worked WONDERS for my daughter at 12 months, at 25 months, and again at 34 months. I hid her favorite books, figurines and light up toys so that they captured her attention for as long as possible when given to her on the airplane. Since we don’t fly much, I also surprised her with a couple of inexpensive toy and art activities that I had stored away. I was glad to have them when flights were delayed and when I was nursing and caring for my son while flying alone with both!

I hope these tips helped! What works for you when flying with kids? Has anyone else flown alone with more than one child under 5? 

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