Tips for Surviving Your Child’s Tonsillectomy

A few years ago, my second child has his tonsils removed when he was not even 2.5 years old. I blogged about it then because I read so many horror stories of tonsillectomy recovery and wanted other parents to know that sometimes kids do better than you think.

But after my daughter’s recent tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy, I am blogging about the experience again—this time with my tail between my legs. I knew she wouldn’t have as easy a recovery as my son, but I wasn’t prepared for the complete opposite side of the spectrum.

Though the surgery itself went well, my daughter had a tough time coming out of anesthesia. After surgery, they placed my moaning daughter on my lap and covered her with a blanket. We were supposed to wait as she came out of anesthesia to make sure she was OK before leaving to recover at home. But she couldn’t stop the moaning and sniffly cries. The anesthetist was eyeing her like a hawk so much that it make me feel uncomfortable. Twice he asked the nurse to give her an extra dose of morphine. Looking back, this was probably the first indication that it was going to be a long recovery.

It’s been a little more than a month since her surgery, and thinking about her recovery still makes me shudder a bit. But I will say that once you make it to the two-week mark, it only gets better from there. Instead of recounting a day by day story of her recovery, I’ve decided to offer some tips for surviving your child’s tonsillectomy. It may not be an easy road to recovery, as in my daughter’s case, but here are a few things I learned along the way that may be helpful for other parents.

 Tips for Surviving your child's tonsillectomy

14 Tips for Surviving Your Child’s Tonsillectomy

1. Block out your calendar for two full weeks. Of course the doctor will tell you this before the surgery, but I wasn’t prepared for two full weeks since my son rebounded so quickly. With my daughter, we were walking on eggshells the first 10 days round the clock. By day 10, we saw that little spark begin to reappear in her.

2. Hydration is key. By Day 2, my daughter was starving and wanted more solid food. She even managed to eat tiny pieces of banana with peanut butter. She also did well taking in liquids the first two days, but it got harder and harder past Day 3. I became so desperate for her to drink more liquids that I started bartering with her. If she drank a few sips then she could play a game with me or watch a cartoon. Don’t forget about popsicles. They count as liquids and they help to numb the throat, so be sure to stock your freezer.

3. Medicate round the clock. For my daughter, it was crucial that we stay on top of her meds. They never prescribed her hydrocodone like they did my son (though he never needed it), but I wish they would have for her. We had such a hard time managing her pain. The doctor recommended Tylenol round the clock and Ibuprofen as needed for breakthrough pain, but her pain was so bad that we alternated both round the clock the first week.

4. Swallowing may hurt. Around Day 4, we realized that part of the reason my daughter stopped drinking as much was because swallowing hurt. This totally makes sense since swallowing affects the surgery location. But I thought it bizarre that she could eat soft foods without pain. Around this time, she began rejecting her liquid Tylenol and Ibuprofen. We tried forcing it down her throat with a syringe but she would just spew it out. So my mom found some chewable children’s pain tablets and those worked for her. We also learned to mix liquid meds with a little bit of ice cream to make them easier to take. This is also the time to push the popsicles if your child will eat them.

5. Tantrums are the norm. With three kids and a baby, I thought I knew a thing or two about tantrums. But this recovery brought out the worst tantrums I’ve ever seen out of any of my kids. And there were 5-6 major tantrums a day and a couple during the night. I’m not going to lie, some of them really scared me. One night she woke up screaming and clawing her face and eyes and then kept biting my husband. I started tearing up because it scared me so much and she looked so demonic, so I started praying then and there. The constant tantrums and crying will cause you to walk on eggshells. It’s really unavoidable.

6. Car rides are for calming. All my kids fall asleep in the car fairly often. If your child is the same, then consider taking them on car rides to help calm them down. Because my daughter is still in a five-point harness, the car seat secured her well during tantrums and I think also helped to comfort her by holding her in tightly. When the tantrums got so bad and we couldn’t get her calmed, we would pop her in the car and go for a ride until she fell asleep.

7. Find your village. You really do need help when it comes to caring for a child after a tonsillectomy. Even though my son did well with recovery, I still needed help on surgery day arranging care for my other kids. With my daughter, the village was barely enough. I l nearly needed the whole city. My parents helped me care for my daughter along with the baby at their home nearby the first few days. This 3:2 adult-to-kid ratio still didn’t give us any rest because it typically took two of us to care for her and one for the baby. Meanwhile, my husband took care of our two boys at home. If you have multiple kids, I’d suggest asking a friend if your well child can come over for a playdate during the recovery period.

8. Co-sleeping makes nights easier. We’ve never been a co-sleeping family, but it helped make my life a little easier during my daughter’s recovery. I kicked my husband out of our room and put my daughter in our bed for two full weeks. That way, when she woke up in the middle of the night, sometimes all I had to do was put a hand on her chest to calm her down. Other times, she went into tantrum mode but at least I could tackle the majority of them without getting out of the bed. It was also good to be close by for when it was time to give her pain medicine.

9. Sleep will change. I’m not sure if the anesthesia threw my daughter off or if she was just running on adrenaline, but her sleep changed after this surgery. Not only did she have a hard time getting rest during her recovery, but her sleep has also changed now that we’re a month out from surgery. She recently turned four, so it could be she’s at the age where she’s starting to drop her naps. And the surgery could have messed up her sleeping patterns a bit. And a friend recently told me that because she is getting better sleep at night she may not need as much sleep during the day. And the good news is that from Day 1 post-op, she has slept without snoring, which was a huge issue before the surgery.

10. Thumbsucking may not change. I had high hopes that an added benefit of a tonsillectomy would be that it would finally end her thumbsucking. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out exactly as I’d planned. She continued to suck her thumb or let it rest in her mouth as she recovered. I can’t blame her too much because it comforted her.

At the ER for IV fluids and steroids the night of Day 6.

11. When in doubt, see the doctor. By Day 6, things just weren’t getting better. In fact, it felt like they were getting worse. She was still in a lot of pain, still not sleeping much and was very pale and sallow looking. I called the ENT on call and he said that if it was his child, he’d take her to the ER. So just shy of one week post-op, we took her to the ER, where they gave her IV fluid and steroids. That night was the best night of sleep she had during the whole two-week recovery.

12. Avoid scheduling a tonsillectomy for a child if you have a young baby. Sometimes, you don’t have a choice, but I can tell you that her recovery would have been a little easier if I didn’t have a 4 month old at the time. Not only did he require a lot of my attention during the day, but he was also waking up a few times at night to nurse. Thankfully, my parents were a huge help during this time so we could divide and conquer, but it would have been much easier if we’d gotten her tonsils out last fall before the baby came.

tonsillectomy
Day 10: Over the hump of recovery.

13. Prepare yourself for lots of attitude. By Day 10, my daughter was refusing her medicine and I finally felt like we were well over the hump. After 10 days of catering to her every whim to make sure she was as comfortable as possible while recovering, but it was time to stop walking on eggshells around her. Day 10 began what I termed Operation Reformation to get us back to a place where the parent is the authority figure and calls the shots. Kids are super smart, and after 10 days of getting what she wanted when she wanted it, she was not eager to give up that power. So it took about 5 days of reformation to get her back to a point where didn’t think she was in control. She had major tantrums during this time. They were a bit different than the tantrums during her first week of recovery when she was in a lot of pain and couldn’t express herself. These tantrums were a result of being mad from not getting her way. Discipline looks different in every home for nearly every situation, but in this instance, we put her in her room every time she pitched a fit. For a few days, I feel like the only thing I did all day was put her back in her room. It was exhausting hearing her cry and scream and kick and flail, but we couldn’t let her continue down the path of doing whatever she wanted now that she was over the hump.

14. You will get your child back. Just when you think you can’t handle another day of the recovery process—the crying, the screaming, the tantrums, the battles over taking medicine, the struggle of getting in liquids, the lack of sleep—around the two-week mark you will get your child back. You may have to be very consistent with discipline if there is an attitude shift, but underneath that is the child you’ve known and loved.

There were several times that I questioned our decision to remove my daughter’s tonsils. There were several times that I wished we would have tackled it a year earlier when she was a little younger and before we had another baby. Looking back, I can say that I’m glad we got it done, no matter how hard those two weeks were. She is no longer snoring or having inconsistent breathing at night. And though it’s only been a month, she hasn’t been sick since the surgery, which is huge because she has been sick with colds and coughing all fall before the surgery.

My daughter’s and my son’s tonsillectomy surgeries were both extreme cases on opposite sides of the spectrum, but I thought it was worth sharing some tips in case you have a child who has a rough recovery.

Has your child undergone a tonsillectomy? Do you have any tips to add?

 Tips for Surviving your child's tonsillectomy