A Pediatrician Talks About First-Time Parenting

A seasoned physician reveals that all his training didn't prepare him for fatherhood.


Two years ago, my wife, Kate, and I experienced the most important event of our lives: the birth of our first child, Bess, a healthy, beautiful little girl. And despite my 15 years as a pediatrician -- I even wrote a book on baby care -- I'm still humbly discovering that I'm hardly an expert when it comes to adapting to my daughter.

This realization first dawned on me when Bess was 6 weeks old. I was watching her while my wife caught a much-needed nap. It was really my first time alone with her, and I basked in the warmth of Bess's playful smile -- but soon enough a storm front of panic moved in. Bess suddenly began to experience a strange and violent wavelike motion of the body. It started at her mid-thighs and quickly extended upward to her belly and chest. At the end of each baby tsunami, she extended her neck, gulped, and let out a high-pitched squeak.

In between these jerky motions and squeaks -- and, in fact, even during them -- Bess didn't appear to be in any pain or distress. But I surely was. Urgent questions raced through my mind: What do I do? What's happening to Bess? Should I wake my wife? What if this is an emergency? Because I'm a doctor and I see a small minority of the worst cases of illness, every horrible possibility came to mind. Was Bess having a seizure? Did she have a rare metabolic disease? And all the while, the waves continued: thigh jerk progressing to a belly roll, followed by a coda of squeaks, over and over, as if Bess were keeping time to a song in her head.

After a few more minutes of unproductive panic, I rushed to our bookshelf to thumb through the dozens of baby-care books we had purchased while Kate was pregnant. Each page confirmed in my mind that a terrible diagnosis was looming. Finally, I consulted our neighbor, a well-versed, sensible, and, most important, calm mother of two. She gave Bess a rapid once-over, paused, and gently reassured me that my daughter was experiencing her first bout of the hiccups. "They're nothing to worry about," she said, smiling broadly.

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Sure, I had written one of those books I so frantically consulted that afternoon. Yes, I felt secure in my knowledge of children's medical care. But my daughter threw me a major curveball in the form of a hiccup. Who knows how I might have reacted to a bout of sneezing?

I wish I could say that was the last of those scares. But recently, when Bess had a fever, my wife caught me making a phone call to our pediatrician after I'd told her there was nothing to worry about. (And there wasn't.)

I now realize that it takes time to learn how to read your baby's cues and become confident. Contrary to the famous advice of my pediatric hero, Dr. Benjamin Spock, who wisely told generations of parents, "You know more than you think you do," I must confess that, as a pediatrician, I know less than I thought I did.

As a doctor, when confronted with clinical problems, I act with confidence and expertise. How do you handle a fever? "That's easy," I tell a worried parent. What do you do for a vomiting child? "Not to worry," I say calmly. But now that I'm a father, I appreciate the parental terror that can accompany a so-called minor problem. I now know that when it's your child, nothing's minor -- and that realization has made me a better doctor.

On a recent family vacation, our flight was delayed. When the plane finally landed, Bess's ears must have popped and I was struck by the look of utter pain in her eyes. Before having Bess, had a mother called me with this concern, I would have told her that the child's ears were adjusting to the change in air pressure and that it was no big deal. But when it's your child, everything is a big deal. Now I'm more sensitive to that.

Many people have said that you'll never love anyone as much as your own child, but that statement holds new meaning for me. I have taken to heart something a favorite pediatrician once told me: Children are more resilient than all of us -- parents and pediatricians -- put together. And I'm happy to report that Bess agrees.

Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D., is the author of several books, including The Practical Pediatrician: The A to Z Guide to Your Child's Health, Behavior, and Safety.

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Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the March 2002 issue of Child magazine.

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