Parenting Like a Pediatrician

For CharlottesvilleFamily Bloom magazine, July 2017 issue

The early days of caring for a newborn can feel to parents like they are on a boat at sea. Some days are sunny and tranquil, while others are fraught with storm clouds and uncertainty verging on panic. The enormity of the task of keeping this precious, tiny person alive and well, coupled with the stresses of changed routines and the lack of quality sleep, drives most parents to head quickly for shore—straight to their baby’s pediatrician, who has all the answers to their seemingly countless questions.

Pediatricians love their jobs for the same reason. “Ninety percent of our job is reassurance,” says Dr. Carol Boersma of Piedmont Pediatrics. “There’s never a dumb question or a silly reason to come in. No one expects new parents to know everything.” After reading dozens of baby books, parenting magazines and online articles, however, sometimes the parents themselves seem to expect they should know everything.

To calm the fears and worries of new parents, area pediatricians have one overriding message: It’s simpler than you think. “Providing a safe, consistent, loving environment for your baby is the goal,” says Dr. Boersma, and beyond that, parents should do what works best for their families. “New parents often feel like there’s some sort of parenting ideal, and they constantly think they are doing something wrong or not enough. I try to tell them it’s okay.”

“There is a lot of science, but also a lot of art to parenting,” says Dr. Anne Ranney of Northridge Pediatrics. “We try to empower parents to have confidence. I tell them that no one knows their baby better than they do, and they need to listen to that. That’s their meter.” In the current era of information overload, the message may be hard for new parents to hear.

Local pediatricians point to several common misconceptions that pervade the thinking of many new parents, notions that doctors try to gently refute to help parents breathe a little easier as they care for their baby. First-time moms and dads might ask themselves whether these seven areas of “common knowledge” actually create more stress than benefit.

Myth #1: The more baby books you read, the better.

“A lot of parenting books are anxiety-provoking,” says Dr. Rob Trundle of Pediatric Associates of Charlottesville. “They warn parents about all kinds of dangers that are not realistic dangers, and cause parents to worry about everything.” For example, if each time an infant runs a fever, a parent’s fears run to the unlikely extreme of meningitis, then mild illnesses for the baby become a source of acute stress for the parents. 

Milestones for the ages by which a baby “should be” sitting, pulling up, crawling, and walking can be similarly frustrating. “Not all babies are the same,” says Dr. Boersma, “and you might not have a kiddo that fits those parameters.” But these numbers are tangible measurements that parents can become fixated on, leading to anxiety when their child lags. Better to focus on whether a child is eating, sleeping, and happy, say the doctors, and give the timing of development wider latitude.

Myth #2: The internet is a good source of reliable information on baby care.

While the internet can be useful when parents consult dependable websites—such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)—for facts and advice, too often parents end up on blogs filled with mostly opinions given by non-professionals. “The hard part in general of being a parent right now is that so much information on the internet is not validated,” says Dr. Ranney. “You get a lot of advice, both asked-for and unasked-for, and it’s best to vet it through your family and your doctor rather than to listen to just one source.”

Ann Backof, parent of a five-year-old and two-year-old twins, says she’s learned not to surf online for health advice. “For things like lumps and bumps and lymph nodes, if you search online for symptoms you can convince yourself it’s something terrible,” she says. Once the twins came along, she was better able to call her pediatrician’s office and follow the nurse’s instructions without panicking, even if that meant watching and waiting for a day. “I definitely became less stressed about germs and less regimented about everything, much more relaxed.”

Myth #3: Only certain types of food are appropriate for your baby.

Breastfeeding for newborns is recommended by the AAP for health and immunity benefits, but the path to success for new moms is sometimes challenging. While doctors and lactation consultants are on hand to help solve common problems, a mother’s anxiety over whether or not her baby is eating enough can drive both parents to distraction. An openness to other healthy options, such as formula, is useful if a particular path is not working. “Sometimes you try something, and then you regroup and try something new,” says Dr. Ranney. “Our job is to know the science and be able to give choices.”

Pediatricians must also convey the trade-offs of those choices. Some new parents may choose to prepare homemade baby food using organic ingredients, but the time and expense involved may be prohibitive for others. Pediatricians advise parents to reduce the pressure they heap on themselves, and to understand the cost/benefit balance. “If it’s a stressor to your family to buy or make organic food or formula, then that stress may make things unbalanced, and regular formula is fine,” says Dr. Trundle. “Really, the most important thing you can do is love and bond with your child, and the rest is much less critical.”

Myth #4: Social media is always a comfort for new parents.

Like the consumption of social media generally, online connections can make a new parent feel better or worse. Linking with other parents online can provide an outlet for advice and commiseration, but if those connections end up in a comparison game, they may not be uplifting. “Social media is no help if your friends post only great stuff and perfect images, but not the really bad days,” says Dr. Boersma. “That just produces more anxiety for everyone else.”

Dr. Boersma feels that an even bigger problem these days is the distractibility of parents. “We accuse teenagers of being addicted to technology, but we as parents are so distracted by our devices,” she says. Eye contact with an infant is an important key to bonding, and parents should try to ignore the impulse to text or answer emails while spending time with their baby. Save those tasks for after they go to bed, she suggests. “Make the time that you have together count.”

Myth #5: Daycare must conform to a certain ideal.

“One thing parents should think carefully about is their choice of daycare, because the baby will spend a lot of time there,” says Dr. Trundle. But lots of different types of arrangements can work for families, and not all are expensive or hyper-structured. While some new parents worry about the types of snacks offered or the level of instructional development provided, pediatricians counsel a simpler criterion for selecting a daycare facility.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to have warmth,” says Dr. Trundle, referring to a wholehearted and genuine quality of interaction between caregivers and children. Emphasizing the value of socializing for babies, he advises parents to maximize the personal, face-to-face attention a child receives during the day, and to consider a variety of ways to get there. “Perhaps a grandparent can help by caring for the baby part-time, or by picking her up early from daycare,” he suggests. The elements of warmth and connection are important in a baby’s early development, “and the more babies are looked at and smiled at and interacted with, the better.”

Myth #6: Babies are oblivious to stress at home.

The work and worry that are part of the job of new parents can cause tempers to flare between members of the household, and even the youngest infants can pick up on those vibes, say pediatricians. “If a mother and father are not getting along, the baby feels that stress,” says Dr. Trundle, “and stressed parents are not fully engaged with their baby.”

Nurturing the relationship between parents is an important but often sidelined de-stressor, as is recognizing what moms and dads may be missing, such as sleep and exercise. Parents need to remember to take care of themselves, as well as their baby. “If as a mom you don’t get enough sleep, you go crazy,” says Backof, mother of three. “Sometimes you have to outsource other stuff to be able to take care of yourself.”

Myth #7: You have to stick with your original pediatrician.

Pediatricians will be the first to tell new parents: they should absolutely try to match their style to that of their baby’s doctor. This match is not always obvious in the early days and weeks after the baby arrives, and parents often realize that they require a different approach to care than they thought. “My son had a variety of unusual issues so I needed to be at the pediatrician’s office a lot, which was difficult as a working mom,” says Backof. “I found one that was always on call, so I switched to her and was much happier.”

Pediatrician styles can range from a “paternalistic” approach, where a doctor decisively recommends a particular treatment option, to an open-ended manner in which options are presented to parents and the decision is left entirely up to them, as well as many points in between. New parents who sense they need more or less of something from their pediatrician should ask for it, and not be afraid to make a change if needed.

Fact: You can do this.

The overarching message from pediatricians to new parents is: Focus on the big picture, and have confidence that you know what you’re doing.

“If your first thought is ‘does my child need me?’ and you give your child love and attention and spend time with them and watch them, you are fine!” says Dr. Trundle. “You don’t have to worry about whether you let your baby cry it out or not on any particular day. When it comes to choices, you’re doing what you’re doing out of love, and that’s what it’s all about.”