In many ways, parenting can be both harder and easier for pediatricians than for those of us without medical degrees. While all parents are anxious, four years of medical school leaves many pediatricians with a mental checklist of rare childhood ailments to worry about. "As a pediatrician, you know more horror stories," says Marla Mikelait, M.D., a pediatrician at Temple Children's Hospital, in Philadelphia, and the mother of 16-month-old Julian. "During pregnancy, I had all of these fears about what would be wrong with him. And I still think that every time he gets a fever."
Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, mother of Andy, 9, and Julia, 6, and the author of Baby 411, experienced her own freak-out when her daughter developed a series of brown birthmarks that can indicate a disease called neurofibromatosis, which can cause tumors in the brain and ear. "Six marks or fewer are benign. My daughter has twelve. The day she developed number seven, I sat in the bathroom crying, looking at her naked," she says. "My husband said, 'Will you please let someone else examine her? You're not objective here.' She went through a battery of tests and is a perfectly normal child. Those aren't the kinds of things that keep other moms up at night. But all parents have a license to worry."
For Alan Greene, M.D., a pediatrician at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford and the author of From First Kicks to First Steps, medical training helped him be more involved in caring for the baby than he would have been as a clueless new father. "Dads can feel left out because they don't always know a lot about kids. Knowing so much as a pediatrician made me enjoy and savor the moments more and made it far easier for me to be a dad," says the father of four, who had his first child while still in medical school.
Coping With Crybabies
After being blessed with an undemanding first baby, Dr. Greene was surprised to find himself with a very fussy second child on his hands. "After Garrett, I thought, 'This is easy,'" he says. "But with Kevin, it took a lot of effort to soothe him." After much trial and error, Dr. Greene and his wife discovered the magic solution: Kevin needed to be upright and swaddled as he was held and rocked.
Dr. Mikelait's son suffered from colic and was inconsolable every night for more than an hour. "I thought, 'I know about this, I should be able to fix it,' but no, I couldn't do anything. I tried the things I tell everybody to do -- swaddling and shushing -- but it's hard to follow my own advice." When nothing would stop the tears, Dr. Mikelait handed over her baby to someone else or let him cry in his crib for a few minutes to give herself a break.
Perri Klass, M.D., a pediatrician in Boston, a mother of three, and the author of Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn't Fit In, struggled with her oldest son, who protested vocally every time he was laid down. Luckily, he also had good taste in music. "He definitely had a preference for the Beach Boys," she says of Orlando, who was calmed by the tunes. Dr. Klass found the experience just as tough as any other novice mother. "A lot of things surprised me about having kids: the intensity of sleep deprivation, how hard the work is, the anxiety when it hits, and even the pleasure and joy. It's a very hard thing to imagine before you have a child."
Dr. Brown also expected a smoother ride. "That first night home is the worst. In the hospital, the baby is exhausted and perfect," she says. "Forty-eight hours later, he wakes up. You start thinking, "The nurses did so well with him. I'm a failure as a parent.'"
Even a few months on, parenting still didn't feel like second nature to her. "I knew the textbooks, and I felt fairly confident going in, but my two children tortured me," Dr. Brown says. "My oldest son was really high-maintenance; it took a lot of work to get him to relax. I thought I'd get a break with my second, but she was just as difficult. It never bothered me to hear kids crying in my office, but my own kids' crying just drives me nuts."
The Decision to Breastfeed
One thing that pediatricians rank as crucial to the health of their own children is breastfeeding. "I don't know any pediatrician who didn't nurse her baby -- we spend all day saying how great breastfeeding is," says Dr. Mikelait, who nursed for eight months. "But I would never insist that a woman do it, because I know how hard it is."
Colette Desrochers, M.D., a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and mother of Michael, 5, Julia, 3, and Isabelle, 1, nursed each of her children while working three days a week. "It was a little tricky, but I felt strongly that it was the best thing I could do to keep my kids healthy, especially since they were all in daycare," she says. "It absolutely helped. They ended up with few infections."
Dr. Brown had a lot of trouble nursing her daughter, Julia, who suffered from acid reflux. "It was misery. I would nurse her and then she'd immediately throw up the feeding. So I would use expressed milk or formula to feed her again, and then I'd be pumping to try to get more milk," she says. When Julia was 6 weeks old, Brown reluctantly gave up nursing in favor of formula. "I had the attitude that I was going to breastfeed. Finally, Julia's pediatrician told me it was okay to stop. I almost needed someone to give me permission," she says. "The experience made me realize what a challenge breastfeeding is, and that sometimes it's okay to let go."
Choices About Childcare
On a variety of topics, doctors found that their opinions changed when faced with the issue at home. Dr. Brown's husband, an ear, nose, and throat doctor, was adamant that their two children not use pacifiers. But once they brought home their oldest, Andy, it didn't take long for him to soften his hard-line position. "Our first night at home, Andy was screaming bloody murder for three hours straight," she recalls. "My husband kept asking me, 'You're the pediatrician, what's wrong with him?' Finally, he went to Walgreens at 2 a.m. and brought home a pacifier. You come to the table with ideas that go right out the window."
On the issue of circumcision, the doctors we spoke with say that their views have changed through the years. When his sons were born, Dr. Greene had them circumcised without much deliberation. Since then, however, he's reconsidered. "I don't see that the medical advantages justify it. Yes, circumcision might make urinary tract infections and HIV harder to contract, but that doesn't outweigh the fact that the reproductive organs were designed to work with the foreskin intact. Now, I would let my children decide for themselves as adults."
Dr. Brown also decided ahead of time to circumcise her son, as was the norm in the 1990s. "I don't feel as strongly about it anymore. There are subtle medical advantages, but I've gotten more gray on the topic over the years," she says. "Now, I tell patients that it's a personal choice."
One issue that's nonnegotiable for pediatricians in their own homes is safety. "One of the most important things to me was that my kids always be in car seats," says Dr. Desrochers. "One time my father wanted to drive the children home from church five blocks away. But he didn't have car seats, so I wouldn't let him do it." She learned the hard way about childproofing when her 9-month-old son tumbled down the stairs. The stair gates went up the next day. "The baby was fine, but my husband and I were so upset," she says.
The 2 a.m. Wake-Up Call
Having a medical degree on the wall doesn't make it any easier for pediatricians to instill stellar sleep habits in their children. "Julian is a horrible sleeper," admits Dr. Mikelait. "He still wakes up in the middle of the night at 15 months. I have all this pat advice that I give parents, but I have trouble letting him cry it out and leaving him in his own bed -- all the things we pediatricians say."
Even though she tells parents not to expect their children to sleep more than six hours at a stretch until 4 months of age, Dr. Brown was frustrated when her own children did just that. "Neither one of them slept. I heard stories at work about babies sleeping through at 6 weeks and I thought, 'Can't I get a break?'"
"I give great advice about sleep, but I don't always follow it," adds Dr. Desrochers. "During the first year, I'm a real softie and nurse the babies when they wake up in the night even though I'm absolutely exhausted." After weaning, however, Dr. Desrochers gets tough. "Reinforcing that their bed is where they sleep is important. We never stay in the room with them until they fall asleep or let them nap on the couch. Sticking to a routine also helps. But with sleep, it's what works for your family."
Dr. Greene tries to stay ahead of the curve, which makes life easier for everyone in the household. "My mom's advice to me was: 'Feed them before they're too hungry; put them to bed before they're overtired.' Be aware of your kids' rhythms and try to be just one little step ahead of them throughout the day," he advises.
Overall, these five pediatricians agree that becoming parents has made them better doctors -- and vice versa. "I'm a lot more understanding of why parents don't do everything the pediatricians think is important," says Dr. Mikelait. "It's much harder than you expect to stay consistent with everything you believe in." And all acknowledge that it's impossible to be a perfect parent. "There's no one decision you make that will mean everything," says Dr. Klass. "You have to work it out as you go."
Michelle Bowers is a correspondent for People and coauthor of How We Met: Real-Life Tales of How Happily Married Couples Found Each Other.