School health forms, vaccinations, growth charts: These are the familiar components of an annual well-child visit with your pediatrician.
But your child’s provider has a wealth of expertise in other topics, too. They can help you problem-solve and make decisions regarding nutrition, sleep, education and more.
New data from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health reveals that most parents could be doing more to maximize their time with their child’s health care provider.
The poll, which was conducted in August and September, included responses from 1,331 parents with children ages 1 to 12.
The majority of parents (92%) reported having a well-child visit within the past two years. Parents showed a preference for continuity of care by a regular provider, with 67% reporting that their child always sees the same provider for well visits. Additionally, 47% of parents said that even if it involves a longer wait to get an appointment, they schedule visits with their child’s regular provider. Thirty-four percent strongly agreed that their child was more likely to follow advice coming from a provider they know well.
But more parents could be making an effort to prepare for these visits. Fifty-four percent of parents said they sometimes make a list of questions before their child’s visit, and only 25% said they do so often. Twenty-one percent reported that they never do.
Meanwhile, 21% said they often write down information about changes they have noticed in their child’s health, and 22% said they often ask children ages 6-12 to think of their own questions to ask their provider.
Since most children are being taken to regular well-child visits, and most families have positive relationships with the health care providers they see, these appointments offer an excellent opportunity for parents to seek advice and for pediatricians to disseminate information.
“The purpose of the well-child visit is both to assess the child’s growth and development and look for any signs of problems,” Sarah Clark, a researcher and co-director of the Mott Poll, told HuffPost. “And then the second thing is to set the family up for how they should go about their business of keeping the child safe and healthy.”
Dr. Ijeoma Opara, who practices pediatrics in Detroit and teaches at Wayne State University, told HuffPost that well-child visits, in addition to catching conditions early and allowing for preventive medicine like vaccines, serve as an opportunity to offer parents reassurance and guidance and to answer their questions.
“There’s always questions,” Opara said. “No matter how many children one has, each child is unique and different.”
HuffPost spoke with Clark and various pediatricians about the ways that parents can make the most of these visits. Here are their tips and suggestions.
Make A List Of Questions You Have For The Provider
Dr. Jen Trachtenberg, a pediatrician in New York, told HuffPost that she advises parents to “make a list of any concerns they may have about nutrition, exercise, activities, sleep issues, social and emotional health, behavioral and physical complaints — to name but a few.”
Clark suggested looking back over the year since your previous visit and identifying moments when you weren’t sure what to do. Maybe your infant had a fever and you didn’t know which medication to give or the dosing. Or maybe you’re wondering if it’s time to get a new booster seat for the car, or what the difference is between gummy vitamins and chewables.
A well-child visit is an opportunity to discuss “the kinds of things that don’t rise to the level of needing to schedule a sick visit,” said Clark. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not important.”
Dr. Mona Amin, a pediatrician in Florida, said, “I always remind parents to write the questions down because I have noticed in practice that parents often forget, since it can be an overwhelming experience to go to the pediatrician.”
Opara recommended jotting down notes as you speak with your child’s provider. “It’s also helpful to go back later and say, ‘Oh, these were the questions I asked, and these were the answers.’ That can help you for future kids, or even other members of your community,” she said, emphasizing that there is no such thing as a “stupid question.”
“You are never bothering your health care professional” by asking them to give their input, she said. “Literally, that is our job.”
Remember that, as in so many instances, your child’s first lessons in how to communicate with a doctor come from watching you, so you’ll have to be the kind of advocate for their health that you want them to be someday.
Prepare Your Child For What The Visit Will Be Like
In the Mott Poll, 40% of parents reported that they often address their child’s fears before a visit.
For small children, there are a number of books and videos you can use to prepare them for what the visit will entail. Clark recalled “The Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor” as one example from her own childhood. More recent books feature characters like Biscuit and Froggy, or familiar faces from TV like Daniel Tiger and Dora the Explorer.
You can also watch videos, like this one featuring Daniel or this one of Grover getting a checkup, so your child can get an idea of what the doctor’s exam entails.
“A fun thing to do is act it out with the little toy medical kit and maybe a favorite stuffed animal,” said Clark. You can even bring the toy or doll along with you to the well-child visit.
Once kids are accustomed to visiting their provider every year, their concerns usually boil down to one question: “Will I get a shot?”
Even if you’re pretty sure the answer is no, it’s important not to make this promise. You also don’t want to link shots with their behavior.
“It’s important not to tell your child [that] if they are not good, they will get shots,” said Trachtenberg. Instead, it’s “best to wait until the end and let [the] pediatrician discuss with both of you, and stay calm and be supportive to your child,” she said.
Amin advised being honest about shots, while remaining reassuring. You might sat something like: “The shot/vaccines might hurt, and that is okay. I will be right there holding your hand. And after, you will get a Band-Aid.”
Don’t forget that children will pick up on any anxiety you may be feeling about the visit, too, even if you think you’re disguising it.
“You have to watch your own behaviors, attitudes and the way you yourself talk about the visit,” said Opara. Kids internalize parents’ feelings about doctors and medicine.
She suggested that parents try to frame the visit as an “opportunity to participate in our own health [and] learn more information.” Kids should see asking the doctor their own questions as a sign that they are growing up.
Encourage Older Children To Bring Their Own Questions
Opara said you can help foster independence in your child by letting them answer the doctor’s questions and having them ask their own.
When a question comes up between visits, you can tell your child, “Let’s write that down, and you will ask them at your next appointment,” said Opara.
“School-aged children are often very curious,” Amin noted. “They have questions about their bodies, such as ‘Why do our bodies need sleep?’ or ‘What does the heart sound like?’ This is a great learning experience and time to foster a positive relationship with their body.”
Once they become adolescents, children “may wonder about the changes happening to their bodies,” said Amin. Interestingly, she said, “One of the most common questions I get from teenagers is ‘Is this the tallest I’ll ever be?’”
Around age 12, your child’s provider will likely ask you to leave the room so that they can speak with your child privately. This is “so they can become confident in the care of their own bodies, as well as discuss questions regarding risk-taking behaviors and often period questions with female patients,” said Trachtenberg.
“Doctor-patient trust is important to establish early on and helps to ensure better medical care,” she added.
You can help prepare your child for this one-on-one by encouraging them to practice answering and asking questions with the doctor while you are still in the room with them.
Don’t ask your child’s provider about anything they say during their private chat, which Amin notes is confidential. “Your pediatrician will not share with you the information they discuss with your child, unless they are concerned for your child’s safety or the safety of another individual,” she said.
Take Notes About Any Changes In Your Child’s Health
Whether you’ve noticed a change in your child’s demeanor and appetite, or a day care provider or teacher has commented about a shift they’ve seen, the well-child visit is a space to bring up things that could be a potential cause for concern.
“Pediatricians and family physicians have a pretty good perspective on the wide range of normal,” said Clark, and they are happy to offer advice, a referral to a specialist or even just reassurance.
Opara recommended taking a few minutes to ask yourself: “What am I curious about? What am I worried about, and what am I excited about?” There’s no requirement that something be negative or worrisome in order for you to bring it up.
At the same time, try not to shy away from issues that you’re concerned you may not be handling well.
“We all as parents have fears. ‘Am I doing this right? Am I messing up this kid?’” said Opara. “Don’t be afraid to share those vulnerabilities.”
Your child’s provider wants what’s best for your family and is there to support you, not to judge.
Stay Up To Date On Health Topics That May Impact Your Child
While you shouldn’t turn to Dr. Google for a consult, you can still look for information from reliable sources about conditions your child has or milestones that you think they should be nearing. Your child’s provider can help guide you to good sources and sort through any myths or misconceptions that you may have heard from family, friends or social media.
Each provider HuffPost spoke with mentioned “anticipatory guidance” as a key component of the well-child visit.
“This is where we can discuss how parenting, child behavior, development, sleep, etc. is going for the child and family. And then, I can offer additional information and resources to address their concerns and prepare them for things they may encounter,” said Amin.
In other words, talking about your child’s future should be part of the discussion.
Find A Provider You Trust
While it’s good to build a relationship with a provider over time, if you feel that you need to hide things from them or can’t be upfront with them on certain topics, this may be a sign that you should find someone else to care for your child.
Open communication, said Clark, “is the basis of the relationship. You are trusting that person to do the best they can looking out for your kid.”
Amin reiterated that it’s important to look around for the right provider, as “this person can be with you and your child through all the stages they will go through, from birth to potentially 21 years of age.”