When you choose a doctor for your child, you’re also choosing a partner for keeping your little one’s health, well-being and development on track.
During your newborn’s early days, you’ll look to their doctor for support while you get the hang of things. Plus, thanks to the baby wellness checkup schedule, you’ll be seeing them a lot. As your child gets older, you’ll want a trusted resource if your child sticks an object up their nose, picks up a nasty cold at school or falls on the playground.
But what kind of doctor makes the most sense for your child? Should all babies see a pediatrician until a certain age, or can a family doctor provide care from the beginning? And if you go with a pediatrician, at what age should your child switch to a family doctor or another clinician who specializes in adult health?
Below, we’ll walk you through the differences between pediatricians and family medicine doctors, and highlight some key considerations along the way.
Pediatrician vs. family medicine doctor: Similarities
You want a doctor who has significant training in the care of children. The good news is that both pediatricians and family doctors have the training and experience.
Both types of primary care doctors can provide routine preventive care, treat a variety of conditions and care for illnesses and injuries. They’ll also make sure children are reaching developmental milestones and provide guidance on recommended childhood immunizations.
Pediatrician vs. family doctor: Differences
While both doctors care for children, there are reasons why you may choose one over the other. Pediatricians solely specialize in the treatment of children, while family medicine doctors specialize in treating patients of all ages.
Family physicians treat patients of all ages
Family medicine doctors treat the largest variety of patients at all ages and stages of life. So, you don’t need to be a kid to see a family medicine doctor.
The extent of a family doctor’s general medical knowledge is hard to beat. Chances are they’ll know something about almost every health concern that affects you or your child during your life.
They’re knowledgeable about everything from how to treat pink eye in toddlers to specialized adolescent care and birth control. They can help children with things like asthma, pink eye and bedwetting, as well as provide specialized adolescent care and birth control when needed. They can help adults manage chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. And like OB-GYNs and certified nurse-midwives, family doctors can provide Pap tests, prenatal care and other women's health services. Some also deliver babies.
Pediatricians specialize in the care of children
Pediatricians are passionate about children’s medicine. And their specialized training and day-to-day focus help them deliver care tailored to your child’s needs. They’re especially good at providing care for preemies and children with all manner of special needs – physical, mental and social.
Some examples include:
- Providing moms with tips on breastfeeding, including pumping for premature babies
- Reassuring children who are diagnosed with medical conditions like asthma, which can seem scary at first
- Helping children and their parents through behavioral issues such as ADHD
What ages to pediatricians treat? Pediatricians typically treat kids ages 0 to 18.
How to choose between a family doctor and a pediatrician
Whether you need care for a baby, teen or some stage in between – you can count on these doctors. But, there are some reasons why you may wish to choose one type over the other.
Why you might choose a family medicine doctor
If you already have a long-standing relationship with a family doctor, it can be an easy transition to ask them to care for your new baby once they arrive. They can be there for the whole family from day one – and even before if pregnancy care is part of their practice. Plus, your child will never outgrow a family physician so they can continue to see the same doctor into adulthood.
For busy parents, it can also be nice to have one doctor who takes care of everyone’s needs – especially if you can stack appointments. A dad can meet with the doctor about his high blood pressure before his daughter gets her back-to-school exam. If a mom and her son both exhibit the same cold or flu symptoms, they can be seen during the same visit and receive similar treatment.
Having one doctor for the family has other perks, too. If the same doctor sees multiple family members, they’ll have detailed knowledge about your family’s medical history and may be able to identify patterns that are affecting individual and collective health.
Why you might choose a pediatrician
Does your child need special care for physical, mental or social health? Or, do you want a physician who’s entirely focused on children’s health? Then it may make sense to opt for a pediatrician.
Ask any pediatrician why they chose their career and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you that they love children and want to help them. They understand that being a parent can be tough – and that growing up can be even tougher.
Many parents prefer to see a pediatrician because they like having a dedicated specialist for everything from teething symptoms to teen anxiety. But because pediatricians specialize in the care of children, your child will need to change doctors at some point, usually before they are 18.
At what age should you switch from a pediatrician to a family doctor?
There’s no magic age.
Pediatricians are trained to treat kids up to around 18 years of age. Some stop seeing their patients earlier, while others continue to see their patients through college or even beyond. But that doesn’t mean your child should continue going to the same doctor for as long as possible.
The right time to switch depends on what makes sense for your child and what they want. When your child is in middle school, it’s worth having a conversation about how they feel about their current doctor and if they’d like to change to a different type of doctor.
There are 11-year-olds who can’t wait to escape the kiddie décor of the pediatrician’s office, and young adults who love their doctors so much that they want to see them for as long as possible. Both are normal and okay.
You are responsible for making health care choices for your child until they turn 18. After that point, they can make health decisions on their own.
Learning to be responsible for their health care is an important skill for every young adult. Getting your child ready for adult care starts well before their 18th birthday. Here are some ways to help them prepare:
- As your child moves into their teenage years, give them opportunities to talk about what care they need. During appointments try not to talk for them, unless your teen asks you to.
- Respect their opinions about treatment options whenever possible. That doesn’t mean letting them squirm their way out of necessary things like flu shots. But, if your child says a medication makes them feel gross, encourage them to talk to the pediatrician about alternatives or ways to minimize the side effects.
- Support their growing independence by giving them private time to speak with their doctor. At our HealthPartners and Park Nicollet clinics, starting around age 12, we typically ask parents to briefly leave the room during their child’s appointments.
When it’s time for your child to receive treatment as an adult – whether that’s at age 18 or after college – guide them through the process. Give them the chance to meet with potential doctors, help them understand insurance and coverage, and explain how to get care for their unique health condition.
Find a primary care doctor
Your kid’s doctor is an essential part of a healthy childhood. So, take time to choose a doctor that’s a good fit for you and your child. Consider the office location and your insurance. Ask people for recommendations. And, above all, make sure your child is comfortable with the doctor, and you feel confident in the care that they provide.
At HealthPartners, we have nearly 600 children’s health care providers across Minnesota and western Wisconsin, making it easy to find a doctor near you that is a perfect match for your child’s needs.
Ready to find a primary care doctor?