Children are not simply miniature adults. Their bodies are always undergoing developmental changes, and their health care needs are very different from those of adults. When children and teens go in for a medical exam, part of what the doctor looks at is whether they're developing normally. Some kids may not be able to describe how they feel, and young people are prone to a different set of illnesses from the ones that typically affect adults. Also, many medications have different effects on children than they do on adults, and health care professionals must be familiar with this information to prescribe correctly. For these reasons, it's very helpful to have a specialist looking after your child's medical needs.

What is a pediatrician?

Pediatricians are doctors that specialize in treating the unique health care needs of people from birth to 21 years of age. They are trained to recognize and treat childhood illnesses and injuries, and they also help healthy children and teenagers stay well. Because young people's minds and emotions are developing at the same time as their bodies, pediatricians know they must pay attention to the whole child. These specialists also work with parents and sometimes school staff, acting as a guide in providing a child with the best possible environment.

Some pediatricians specialize further, studying for extra time to become an expert in certain areas of medicine. Neonatal specialists focus on newborns, while adolescent specialists work with the particular needs of teenagers. There are pediatric critical care and emergency medicine specialists, as well as doctors who focus on individual body systems. For example, pediatric cardiologists treat heart problems, while pediatric oncologists help children with cancer. Almost any branch of medicine you can think of has a pediatric specialty in which doctors focus on the symptoms and treatment of children.

Reasons to see a pediatrician

If you've established a relationship with a pediatrician before your baby is born, the first time that the pediatrician will see your child is at their birth. After that, you'll take your child to see their pediatrician for all regular check-ups and immunizations, as well as for any health problems, until they reach adulthood. Whether your child needs to see a doctor because of a simple ear infection or they are experiencing a major health issue, your pediatrician is the primary care practitioner. This doctor will make referrals to a specialist if they feel that your child has an unusual health need.

What does a pediatrician do?

The most common reason for pediatricians to see children in their offices is for routine physical exams. As a parent, you'll find yourself bringing your child to the doctor for many immunizations. You'll also likely have health verification forms that the pediatrician has to sign for your child to attend summer camp and participate in sports and other activities.

Among sick visits, the greatest number are for ear infections, colds, and sore throats. Another common reason for children to see their pediatricians is for concerns related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Primary care physicians are responsible for 53 percent of ADHD diagnoses in children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control, and in almost two out of three cases, a family member is the first person to express concern. Thus, pediatricians are often called upon to evaluate a child's psychological, perceptual, and emotional health, as well as their physical health.

Typical pediatric treatments include prescribing antibiotics and cold remedies, and conducting interviews with parents and teachers regarding a child's attention issues.

For pediatricians who work in hospital emergency departments, the most common reasons that they see patients include upper respiratory infections, superficial injuries, ear infections, open wounds, sprains and fractures, and fevers of unknown origin.


To become a pediatrician, the doctor completes four years of medical school and then three years of residency focused on general pediatrics. Some physicians then pursue further training in a sub-specialty like pediatric surgery or pediatric oncology. There's an additional voluntary certification offered by the American Board of Pediatrics, for which doctors can opt to apply. The procedure for certification involves a rigorous examination every ten years, as well as showing evidence of pursuing ongoing education in their field. You can check with the American Board of Pediatrics to see if your child's pediatrician is board certified, which can give you a sense of confidence that your child is being treated by a highly competent professional.

Referral and research

Your child's pediatrician is their primary care physician, so you won't need to get any referral to see this doctor. However, if the pediatrician recommends that your child sees a specialist (for example, a sports medicine expert or a dermatologist), you may want to do some online research to find one that sounds good and comes with recommendations. It's important to make sure that you have the pediatrician's referral to the specialist you choose, and that your insurance policy covers the expert. You can learn more about choosing a medical specialist in this comprehensive article.

First questions to ask

Many parents have an initial meeting with a pediatrician before their baby is born. Good questions to ask at this meeting are:

  • What is your policy for acute office visits? When children are young, they often have high fevers or need to be seen promptly by a physician.
  • Do you have admitting privileges at a local hospital? Since the pediatrician is your child's primary care physician, it's important for consistency that they can provide care if your child needs hospitalization.

When you interview a pediatrician, you should bring your child along and pay attention to whether they relate well to the doctor.