It's best to begin your search for a baby doctor early in your pregnancy and to select a physician by your seventh or eighth month. Some babies do come early and you'll want a doctor on board. Typically, it's your baby's physician who comes to the hospital after your baby's birth to examine and discharge your infant. Keep in mind that a pediatrician isn't just for sick kids. You'll visit the baby doctor at least six to eight times in the first year for checkups, growth and development assessments, vaccinations, blood work, lead tests, and more than a few discussions about eating habits and sleep strategies.
Start by soliciting names of physicians from friends who have children. Ask parents what they like about their doctor -- and what they don't like. How do their children like him or her? You can also get referrals from your obstetrician, primary care physician, and local hospitals (especially children's hospitals). The American Academy of Pediatrics (aap.org) and the American Academy of Family Physicians (aafp.org) have online referral databases to help you locate providers in your area. Once you've got a list of candidates, check your health insurance plan, especially if you must choose a provider from a selected list. Here are some other factors you'll want to consider before narrowing down your choices:
1. Competence. Understand a doctor's credentials. Check that the physician is board certified, and ask what types of continuing education courses she takes and how often. Has she completed a fellowship or special training, for example, in allergy, sports medicine, or adolescent health? Whether she has special training may simply be a point of interest, but if you already know that your child will require specialized care for, say, a heart defect, seek a physician with extra credentials or experience with that disorder. Aside from these facts, the bottom line is: Does the physician have a reputation in the community for being a really good doctor?
2. Size of the practice. A doctor may work alone, with a partner or two, or in a group of several physicians. With a solo practice, you'll always see the same doctor and will likely build a close relationship and enjoy personalized care. Hours may be limited, however, and you'll need to ask who covers for the doctor after hours and during emergencies or vacations. Group practices tend to offer extended evening and weekend hours (a big help if both you and your partner work). If your doctor can't see you, another doctor in the practice will. Also, if your child is sick, it may be easier to get an appointment the same day. Some larger practices offer broader services through other professionals in the group, such as an allergy specialist. Find out if the practice employs nurses or pediatric nurse practitioners, and ask how they are used. Who will see your baby if he's sick? Who will handle all the well-baby visits?
3. Location. Proximity to your baby's doctor is important, especially when you consider how often you'll be going -- sometimes on the spur of the moment. There's no advance notice with a fever spike or a curious rash. At which hospitals does the doctor have privileges? You won't want to drive far in the event of an emergency, and you might prefer a physician with an affiliation at one of the better hospitals in town, or at a children's hospital. A doctor in your community will also know what services your town offers, including child care, preschool, speech or physical therapy, help for learning problems, and special education. In addition, he'll know what the school district requires for entrance to kindergarten and when Little League physicals are due.
4. Billing. Verify that the physician accepts your current health insurance plan -- and also ask which other plans he works with. Your health plan is apt to change. Also find out how the office handles billing. Is payment due at the time of the visit? What does the practice charge for office visits, vaccinations, and routine lab work?
5. Perks. Some practices offer amenities such as parenting workshops, a Web site with office and medical information, or old-fashioned house calls. A practice may have an in-office trauma room where they handle asthma crises, some x-rays, and other procedures, to save their patients a trip to the ER.