Last fall Calvin had his 3rd open heart surgery just shy of 4 years old. His first two surgeries were a totally different ball game during infancy. Back then, he had no clue what was happening. He just rested and rocked it during recovery. This time was going to be different. He would need to have some idea why, how, and when this surgery was happening.

I was terrified all summer that the whole experience was going to be completely traumatic for all of us. How do you prepare a toddler for heart surgery anyway?? I can’t tell my 3 year old that his doctor is going to CUT OPEN his chest! But I also can’t just let him wake up in the ICU and wonder what the heck just happened. Here’s our general timeline of when and how we prepared Calvin for his upcoming heart surgery.

Plant Seeds

We had the luxury of knowing Calvin’s heart surgery was going to happen months ahead of time. From birth we knew his Fontan needed to happen sometime between the ages of 2-4. After a heart cath in the spring we set a date for early October. A few months before surgery, we started talking to Calvin more intentionally about his heart. Whenever he would get out of breath running I would say something like, “Hey Calvin, you know one day when you run you won’t get out of breath anymore? You’ll be able to run super fast!” A few times at the pool he got really blue and cold. I told him, “You know one day you won’t have to take as many breaks? And your hands won’t get blue anymore!”

Toddler's hand looking blue while swimming at the pool before Fontan heart surgery.
Calvin getting blue at the pool pre-Fontan.

I looked for any positive I could and planted little seeds of hope about how things would be better for him in the near future. These comments opened up natural conversations about how he was born with a “special heart.” We told him that his zipper scar was from two other heart surgeries. Each time the doctors helped make his heart stronger.

Make it Exciting

There’s literally no way to make a heart surgery sound exciting, right? Well, when you are a super-hero obsessed toddler, all things are possible. Calvin is a huge fan of PJ Masks – If you are a toddler mom and have Netflix, you know what I’m talking about. He loves the character Cat Boy who has “super cat speed” as his superpower.

As we talked to Calvin about being able to run better, soon he started saying that he would have super cat speed! This was exciting to him and gave something positive to look forward to even though he didn’t fully understand the idea of heart surgery.

A couple weeks before the surgery we told him his “super cat speed” was coming soon. The doctor was going to do a procedure on his heart while he was sleeping. We said the surgery would not hurt, but that he would wake up with a boo boo where his scar is. He would have to spend a few days in the hospital to heal and he would be sore. But, we would bring him presents and one of us would stay with him the whole time. He was scared and he cried a little, which absolutely broke my heart, but we kept focusing on the positive.

Toddler boy wearing a PJ Masks Catboy mask after Fontan heart surgery.
Cat boy Calvin 1 month post-Fontan. Living out all his PJ Mask dreams!

Heart Surgery Day

A couple days before surgery we told him that his heart surgery day was almost here. He was sad, but we pushed through and talked about a few more of the details. We talked about waking up early in the morning, driving to the hospital, and him going to sleep for his procedure. We told him how amazing it was that God made our bodies to heal quickly from surgery. That he would need to rest in bed for a few days but every day he would feel better and better until we got to go home.  We focused on getting super cat speed, all the little gifts he would get at the hospital, and how Mommy and Daddy would be there with him.

On the morning of surgery Calvin woke up feeling a little scared, by the time we got to the car he was crying big crocodile tears. I felt so bad – all I wanted to do was break down and cry with him! But, that would not have been helpful. Calvin was looking to me to know that everything was going to be ok. Thankfully, I had left a little stuffed animal in his car seat the night before just for this transition. I told him the stuffed animal was super special and would help him be brave. He loved it and settled for hugging it while holding my hand on the drive in to the hospital.

Family waiting in surgery holding before toddler son's Fontan heart surgery
Waiting in pre-op just before his surgery. He was super silly and not scared at all thanks to the “happy meds.”

All children are different, so your child may need a shorter or longer timeline to best wrap their head around heart surgery. Your child’s hospital may have a child specialist on staff you can help guide you in when and how to prepare your child for surgery based on their particular procedure and age.

Have any other tips for preparing a toddler for surgery? Or pitfalls to avoid? Let us know in the comments!

Also read: Questions to Ask Your Child’s Heart Surgeon