Choosing a pediatrician for your baby is no easy task. After all, this doctor will help your little one through childhood vaccinations, nasty colds, and everything in between. But when should you start looking for a pediatrician, and what criteria should you focus on? Here are our top tips for choosing the best pediatrician near you.
When Should I Look For a Pediatrician?
Start looking for pediatricians while you're still pregnant—preferably between 28 and 34 weeks along. "It's important to have a pediatrician you've already met and respect, because you have enough going on after the baby is born," says Evaline Alessandrini, M.D., a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
There’s also another benefit of finding a pediatrician early: Dr. Alessandrini's recent study, which she co-authored, found that babies who see the same doctor for their first 6 months are up to twice as likely to receive important health tests before they turn 2. Sticking with the same doctor also prevents wasted time on things like “going over whether immunizations are up to date," she says. "If you have a continuing relationship with a doctor, you have the time and comfort to go deeper."
How to Research a Pediatrician
Searching for a pediatrician may seem daunting, but remember that you're not trying to find “the best doctor in the world.” You're simply looking for the most effective doctor for you, your partner, and your future child. Here are some tips.
Get references. Everyone has different criteria for picking a pediatrician, so you should collect at least three names from friends and coworkers. (If you're short on preferred doctors, try the American Academy of Pediatrics' referral site at aap.org/referral.) Also look into the hospitals that your candidates are affiliated with; you'll want one that's both convenient and reputable.
Look into insurance. Call your insurance company about any doctor that sparks your interest, since provider lists change frequently.
Visit the office. Scout out the location of the pediatrician's office. Given how often you'll be visiting, you'll want to choose a doctor that’s relatively close to home.
Schedule a meeting. After whittling down your list, schedule face-to-face meetings with some of the doctors (up to three is reasonable). Ask if the doctor charges for these “prenatal visits”—some do, and the fees probably aren't covered by insurance. You can expect to be accommodated within a few weeks, although some pediatricians do monthly group meet and greets.
Brainstorm questions. Write a list of questions that might help with your decision. For example: What is the doctor's availability? If she works with a group practice, what's the likelihood of seeing her during visits? If your baby has a sudden high fever at midnight, who would be on call—a nurse or your doctor? "You're trusting this doctor with your most precious possession, and you should ask what you need to know to feel comfortable," says Dr. Alessandrini.
Avoid inquiring about anything irrelevant, such as their educational history. These questions may "make it seem like you're trying to 'catch' the doctor," says Laura Jana, M.D., coauthor of Heading Home with Your Newborn. "When thinking up questions, ask yourself if you’ll care about the answer."
Making the Decision: What Factors Should You Consider?
Some parents simply have a gut feeling about the best pediatrician; others weigh the pros and cons of each person. The following factors should also rank high on your list of priorities.
Does the doctor share your views? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively for 6 months, then be given breast milk along with solids until at least his first year. Doctors vary on how much they press the issue; likewise, there are opposing sides to the circumcision debate. If you have strong feelings either way, make sure your doctor agrees with your view—or at least respects it.
Does the doctor match your other criteria? Other factors may seem superficial but can still affect your rapport. For instance, some people prefer a young female pediatrician, but others want a grandfatherly type. Some parents will only select a doctor with parenting experience, since they appreciate the extra empathy and hands-on experience that comes from being a mom or dad. The most important thing: Do you and this doctor click?
Does the office run smoothly? From this initial prenatal visit, you can evaluate how the office works. In the waiting room, chat up other parents and ask what they like and dislike about the practice. Also check out the area: Are there books, toys, or a TV to distract children? Do the receptionists seem on top of internal and external communications?
Pediatrician Credentials You Need to Know
When searching for a pediatrician, look for these key designations attached to his/her name.
Board certified: A pediatrician has completed medical school as well as a three-year residency in pediatrics. A “board-certified” pediatrician has also passed a series of rigorous exams, which he'll routinely retake.
AAP member: Check to see if a potential doctor belongs to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which indicates that he adheres to the organization's guidelines and standards.
FAAP listing: These four letters mean that a doctor belongs to the AAP and is board certified.
Can I Switch My Pediatrician?
Sometimes parents and pediatricians simply don’t click. But unless a doctor makes a blatant error in diagnosis, consider giving her a few visits before switching.
If you do decide to "break up," just call the office and ask them to transfer your records. Only do this after you've found a new pediatrician. If your criticism is something the doctor or practice could improve upon, like a cluttered waiting room or delayed call-back times, then it's helpful to let the practice know, says Jennifer Shu, M.D., an Atlanta-based pediatrician and Dr. Jana's co-author. "But if you just didn't click, then move on."