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Finding the Best Pediatrician

Thirty years ago when I was about to open my practice, my professor told me that there are three qualities parents look for in a pediatrician (or other health care provider): that the doctor is affable, able, and available. Of course, he was right, but I've since discovered that it's not as simple as three A's. If that were the case, the perfect doctor for the child of your neighbor or your cousin would also be the best for your little one! But other factors  -- such as the doctor's views on different parenting styles and your child's specific needs  -- come into play too. That's why it's always a good idea to do a little legwork when shopping for a pediatrician, especially since you're forging a long-term partnership with one of your baby's most important caregivers. Making this decision can seem daunting, but it doesn't need to be. Here, what you need to know to choose a pediatrician and make the most of the relationship:

Defining What's Important

If you figure out which qualities you want in your child's doctor before you start your search, you'll have a better chance of finding one who fits your needs. Questions to ask yourself right up front:

Do you want help deciding which parenting style will work best for you, or are you a veteran parent with firmly rooted beliefs who simply needs a medically strong pediatrician? For example, if a parent is struggling with certain philosophies  -- such as whether to have her baby sleep in her bed, how long to breastfeed, or which discipline method would work best for her child  -- I'll help her come to a decision.

How much does location matter? Do you have the time to travel, or do you have a tight schedule and need a doctor's office that's close to your home or workplace?

Would you or your child prefer a male or a female practitioner? While it won't make a difference to an infant or a toddler, you might want to think ahead and consider that teenagers usually prefer doctors of their same gender. (In a group practice with male and female physicians, though, a child of any age can become comfortable with both.)

Does your child have special needs? If he has a chronic illness, such as diabetes or asthma, for instance, you'll want to choose a pediatrician with expertise in that area (in addition to a specialist, of course).

Contributing editor William Sears, M.D., is a father of eight and coauthor of The Baby Book.

Starting the Search; Pre-Checkup

When you're ready to find candidates, ask the like-minded moms in your neighborhood with the most experience about their doctors. Inquire about pros and cons, availability, bedside manner, willingness to fight for you when there's an insurance problem, and so on. Also talk to your obstetrician for ideas because she'll likely have connections and will have a good feel for your specific needs. If you're new to the neighborhood, you can contact the American Academy of Pediatrics and local children's hospitals for lists of doctors in your area.

After you've narrowed your choices to a few finalists and checked whether your insurance covers them as participating members, call the doctors who fit the bill, find out whether they're accepting new patients on that plan, and book short interviews with each one. If you think you want to go to a certain doctor who's not a member of your current plan, call your insurance carrier to see if and how much you can be reimbursed.

Pre-Interview Checkup

Moms have told me it helps to get there early and scope out the office. Introduce yourself to the staff  -- you're likely to have as much, if not more, contact with them as you will with the doctor, so notice whether they're friendly and helpful. Get as much logistical information from the receptionist as you can: office hours, hospital affiliations, and after-hours coverage. While you're waiting, look around and make sure everything's clean and that there are plenty of toys. Discreetly chat with other parents and ask what they like or dislike about the practice.

Speaking With the Doc

When You Speak With the Doctor

Be brief, especially since most don't charge for these meetings. Five or ten minutes is usually enough to make an assessment, but if you think you'll need more time, book a regular appointment  -- which you would pay for  -- and not an interview.

Stick to the point. Bring a list of only your most pressing questions. If your baby's a newborn, don't start talking about future worries, such as bed-wetting, temper tantrums, or learning problems.

Keep an open mind. I've had interviews with expectant parents who began with "We don't want to give our baby eyedrops, vitamin K shots, blood tests, or immunizations." This negativity immediately puts me on the defensive. While it's good to form opinions about certain routine medical practices, it's better to listen to the doctor's side of an issue first. This gives you an opportunity to hear ideas you may not have previously considered. You owe this openness to your child.

Ask leading questions. To figure out whether you and the doctor are of a similar mind-set, talk about the topics that are most important to you, such as nutrition and behavioral development. For example, if you want to find out if he has experience helping working moms who breastfeed, ask, "I want to continue nursing my baby, but I'm afraid I won't be able to, since I'm going back to work in a few months. What would you suggest?"

Also, bring your child with you to the interview. Watch how the doctor approaches your little one, but don't worry if she's anxious, crying, and not immediately warming up to him. Even the best pediatrician can bring on such a reaction! A wise doctor won't get frazzled but will back off until the child feels more comfortable. For instance, if a patient seems scared when I meet her, I temporarily ignore her and start a happy conversation with the parent. After a few minutes, she sees that I'm a mother-approved person and typically calms down.

Trust your intuition. The doctor may seem qualified, but if you have a strong feeling that he's not right for you, keep looking. Mothers do know best.

Recently, a mom told me that it had taken her six months to find the right pediatrician. Her time was worth the effort: The more invested a parent is from the start, the more she can help her child get the best medical care possible.