Top 10 Tips for Talking to a Pediatrician

Open communication is the best way to make the most out of your time with your child's pediatrician. See more parenting pictures.

There are perhaps few things as stressful as being a first-time parent. Suddenly, you are responsible for the life of another human being, and a vulnerable one at that. And unlike your other possessions, there's no owner's manual for this. Every parent you know, including your own, may give you his or her own particular advice about child-rearing. It can be hard to know who to listen to.

Perhaps most worrisome are the thousands of ways a child can get sick. An ill baby who cannot explain its pain will keep you up at night. A toddler who refuses even to have a piece of candy will make you frantic with worry.

This is when a good pediatrician will be able to help and hopefully calm your fears. As with most relationships, you and your pediatrician will benefit from maintaining open communication. In the following pages, we'll go over 10 of the most important ways to communicate with a pediatrician so that you can establish a partnership to keep your child healthy.

10
Research Ahead of Time

If your child is sick, and you are waiting for an appointment with the pediatrician, it might be a nerve-wracking time. But rather than spending that time worrying, use it time to become informed. These days, the Internet makes it easy to research symptoms and conditions. You can get an idea of the possibilities and treatments to expect just by searching Web sites. Having an idea of what to expect will help you make better decisions when you are with the doctor. And because pediatricians are typically very busy, becoming informed can make the visit to the pediatrician more efficient.

However, on the same token, it's important not to jump to conclusions before you get a professional pediatrician's advice. If you're going to research on your own, it's also essential to go to a reliable source, such as:

  • Nemours Foundation for Children's Health
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Mayo Clinic
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration

At these groups' sites and others, you'll be able to find trustworthy articles written by medical professionals. Being informed will also help you be able to distinguish between situations where you do or don't need to call the pediatrician, which we'll discuss next.

9
Know When to Call the Pediatrician

Phone conversations with your pediatrician are convenient and great for getting fast answers to your questions about your child's health. If you relate a child's symptoms over the phone, the doctor can get a good idea about whether you should bring the child in to be checked.

It is, however, possible to overdo it. Your child's health is a priority, and it's better to be safe than sorry, but you probably don't need to call every time your child sneezes. And although many pediatricians are very patient when taking those calls, you can save yourself a lot of time and worry if you know when to call and when to wait it out.

Here are some examples of symptoms your child might show that deserve a call to the doctor:

  • Colds that last more than a few days
  • A fever accompanied by vomiting
  • Ear drainage
  • Persistent or bloody diarrhea

Things like colds come and go, and it's normal for a baby to spit up, so a doctor might just give you advice over the phone if it is something along these lines. If the doctor recommends you do bring the child in, the next step is to have all the right information to provide.

8
Be Ready to Offer Information

The more information the pediatrician has about your child, the better able he will be to diagnose the problem. But he won't know the details unless you tell him.

There are many questions that you should be ready to answer and information that you should be sure to voluntarily provide if you think it applies. This includes details about not only all of the child's symptoms, but behavior, diet and your own response to handling it. Here are some examples of information to provide:

  • The child's temperature (and whether or how long the child has had a fever)
  • Whether you've given the child any medication (what kind and when)
  • Whether the child has refused food (especially a favorite comfort food)
  • Details about how long and why you suspect the child has been ill

As the parent, you are better able than anyone to recognize unusual behavior in your child, such as refusing a favorite food. So, if you notice something strange, mention it and explain why it concerns you. Even if you think it may sound small or petty to the doctor, if it worries you, it's worth bringing up.

7
Answer Questions Completely and Honestly
Answering the pediatrician's questions completely and honestly is in the best interest of your child and her health.
Answering the pediatrician's questions completely and honestly is in the best interest of your child and her health.
Jose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images

If you, as a parent, have brought your child into the doctor with a preconceived idea about the diagnosis, it can be difficult for the pediatrician to get other relevant information from you. If the doctor asks a question that you think doesn't apply, you should still answer it. During a visit, the doctor is trying to narrow down all the other possibilities, so there is a purpose behind every question he or she asks.

Or, sometimes parents might even feel embarrassed and be tempted to give deceptive answers. They might be afraid the truth will make them look like bad parents. Or, if they disagreed with the doctor's previous diagnosis, parents might be tempted to lie about whether they've been following the recommended treatment.

Whatever the case, because your child's health is at stake, it's best to answer the doctor's questions completely and honestly. Give thorough answers and mention all the medications the child has been taking. If you don't understand a question, ask for clarification instead of guessing. And don't let your embarrassment put your child's health at risk. If you don't feel comfortable with your doctor or disagree with him or her often, it's probably best to simply find a new pediatrician.

6
Make the Most of Your Time

Chances are that both you and your doctor have very full schedules. Many doctors have to take a high volume of patients in a short amount of time, which can result in brief visits. So it's especially important to make the most of your appointment and be efficient during your time with the pediatrician.

Questions over the phone are obviously a great way to save time. If you are calling with a question and the doctor is busy, ask the physician's assistant. One way to reduce the chance of a rushed visit or long wait is to make an appointment for early in the day, before the doctor can get backed up by long appointments or called away for emergencies [source: Matz]. If you will have to fill out paperwork, show up early to do that.

Sometimes, patients don't think to ask particular questions while in the appointment. So, if you have done your own research ahead of time, prepare questions based on what you found. Up next, more on the importance of asking questions during your appointment.

5
Ask Questions
Always ask for clarification if you don't understand something the pediatrician says.
Always ask for clarification if you don't understand something the pediatrician says.
Paul Harizan/Getty Images

Some parents simply don't think to ask their pediatrician questions until after they've left the office, but it is one of the most important things you can do during your appointment. You shouldn't feel intimidated or embarrassed of a question you have if it affects your child's health. Don't be afraid to look dumb -- the doctor has probably heard your question many times before. Asking for clarification is particularly important if you don't understand something the doctor has mentioned.

Also, get details about any medication prescribed: what the potential side effects are, how often your child should take it and how to tell if it isn't working. Make sure you understand what the next steps are: whether to bring the child back for a follow-up appointment or what to do if your child isn't feeling better in a few days.

Another important matter is health costs. Your pediatrician may not know specifically what your insurance covers in terms of medications and tests, but he may be able to give you an idea of what things tend to be covered. He may also be able to let you know whether there are any alternative, more affordable options for tests or medication.

In addition to general questions such as these, read on to learn about a specific question you should also consider asking your doctor.

4
Ask What Else It Could Be

Another important question to bring up with your doctor is how he came to his diagnosis, and whether there are any other possible or likely conclusions as to what is wrong with your child. This is important because the pediatrician probably considered many different possibilities and concluded that it must be the most likely one. Other possibilities might not be out of the question, so it's good to get an idea of how sure the doctor is of his diagnosis.

This doesn't mean you should doubt the doctor's conclusion. It just means you should ask more about the other possibilities, why the doctor ruled them out and what to look for if the diagnosis does turn out to be wrong. Once you know the other things -- if there are any -- the doctor is considering, you'll be able to better watch out for those important symptoms.

However, considering their tight schedules, doctors might not have time to discuss the tell-tale signs of the other possibilities with you. So, instead, you can always try researching them on your own.

3
Ask About Alternative Treatments
If you're uncomfortable with the treatment your child's doctor has prescribed for him, you can ask whether there are any alternatives.
If you're uncomfortable with the treatment your child's doctor has prescribed for him, you can ask whether there are any alternatives.
Mark Adams/Getty Images

If the pediatrician does prescribe a medication, ask why it was prescribed and what the side effects are. It's always smart to research the medication on your own, too. If you decide you are uncomfortable giving your child the prescribed drug, ask whether there are any alternative treatments.

Sometimes, doctors feel pressured to prescribe certain drugs simply to appease worried parents, when they may prefer simply using the "wait and see" method. For example, antibiotics are often prescribed for infections that will get better on their own. There has been a decrease in doctors prescribing antibiotics to children since the mid-1990s [source: Reinberg]. Experts chalk this up to increasing awareness about the downside to antibiotics -- the possibility of developing a resistance, meaning future infections may become more severe.

There are alternatives to many types of medications, so always ask the doctor about your other options.

2
Take Notes

The worry over a sick child combined with pressure of short doctor visits is enough to fill up most parents' minds. Even if you intend to have background information ready and prepare questions ahead of time, some of these things could slip your mind. So try to keep a running list of everything you'll want to mention to or ask the pediatrician.

But, just as important, keep that pen in hand during the appointment as well -- take notes while you are with the doctor and listening to the diagnosis and explanation. You don't want to forget any important advice, for example, on how often to give your child certain medication.

The doctor might have to quickly talk about something you're not familiar with. If the doctor doesn't have time to explain something, that notepad will keep the complex terms and jargon fresh in your mind for when you do your own research. It might also help to ask for any relevant handouts with more information to take home.

1
Don't Be Afraid to Disagree

Pediatricians are highly trained professionals: They go through a minimum 7 years of training, including medical school and residency. However, no one is infallible. And professionals continue to debate theories about child-rearing and the best treatments for certain illnesses.

For example, one often-debated issue has to do with the best age to introduce solid foods into your child's diet. One pediatrician might have told you to give solid foods to your first child at 4 months old, but just a few years later after your second child, a pediatrician might have told you to wait until 7 months.

It can be frustrating for both the parent and pediatrician when there is disagreement. While having respect for a pediatrician's expertise, don't allow yourself to feel intimidated about such decisions. Ask the doctor about the reasoning or research behind their recommendation, or you might want to try getting a second opinion.

Overall, it's most important to know your own child and weigh that against professional advice and reliable research.

Learn lots more about parenting and meeting with pediatricians by visiting the links on the next page.

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