Pediatrician: Your Specialist in Children's Primary Care

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What is a pediatrician?

A pediatrician specializes in the physical, developmental, emotional and social health needs of children from birth to 21 years. Pediatricians provide infants, children and adolescents with a wide scope of care that includes comprehensive well-child care as well as prevention, diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic diseases and injuries.

A pediatrician typically:

  • Examines the patient and evaluates their medical history

  • Provides primary healthcare services and immunizations

  • Provides health risk assessments and counseling

  • Diagnoses and treats acute and chronic diseases and conditions

  • Assesses growth and development

  • Orders and interprets laboratory and imaging tests and prescribes medications

  • Educates patients and their caretakers about wellness and disease prevention

  • Consults with other members of the patient’s medical team

  • Provides ongoing pediatric care in the doctor’s office, clinic and hospital

Pediatricians may also be known by the following names: pediatric physician, pediatric doctor, children’s doctor, primary care doctor, kids doctor, and primary care physician.

Who should see a pediatrician?

You should take your child to an experienced pediatrician at least once a year to monitor your child’s physical, intellectual, emotional and behavioral development. These well-child visits are important to ensure that physical problems and developmental delays are identified and treated as soon as possible. Some health insurance plans cover well-child visits on a less frequent basis (such as every other year) as the child reaches age 10 or older. However, it is important to seek a pediatrician’s care for your child in case of injuries and persistent or unusual symptoms and conditions.

When should you see a pediatrician?

Consider seeking care from a pediatrician if your child develops any of the following symptoms or conditions: 

  • High fever (from birth to 3 months: higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit; ages 3 to 6 months: 101 degrees Fahrenheit; ages 6 months and up: higher than 103 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Chronic pain or acute pain

  • Minor bone, muscle and skin injuries

  • Digestive problems, such as vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, that last for more than a few days

  • Headaches that occur frequently and that are accompanied by other symptoms, such as fever and coughing

  • Mild wheezing or shortness of breath (Call 911 for moderate to severe shortness of breath)

  • Abnormal weight gain or loss

  • Unusual behaviors along with anxiety, stress, sadness, or other emotional difficulties

You should also seek care from a pediatrician under the following situations:

  • Illegal drug or alcohol use

  • Possible verbal, physical or sexual child abuse

What conditions and diseases does a pediatrician treat?

A pediatrician treats conditions and diseases including:

  • Chronic diseases and conditions including asthma, allergies and diabetes

  • Infections including ear infections, bacterial infections, and viral infections such as influenza

  • Mental, emotional and behavioral conditions and disorders including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, social anxiety, and depression

  • Minor injuries including small lacerations as well as minor bone, muscle and joint injuries (sprains, strains and fractures)

  • Skin problems including minor burns, infections and rashes

  • Weight problems including obesity, underweight and malnutrition

What tests does a pediatrician perform or order?

A pediatrician can order or perform a wide variety of diagnostic and screening tests including:

  • Cancer screening for suspected childhood cancers, such as leukemia and brain cancer

  • Child abuse screening including evaluations for physical, sexual and mental abuse

  • General health tests including blood oxygen level (pulse oximetry) and blood pressure

  • Imaging tests including X-rays; computed tomography (CT) scans; and ultrasounds to check for blockages, structural abnormalities, infection, and malignancy

  • Laboratory tests including complete blood count (CBC), urinalysis, blood glucose (sugar) test, liver function tests, cholesterol panel, and thyroid hormone tests. Lab tests may include drug, alcohol and toxicology tests when you or your doctor suspects drug abuse or poisoning.

  • Mental health screening for depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bipolar disorder

  • Physical growth and development assessment to analyze weight range and growth rate as well as age-appropriate developmental milestones, such as walking, talking, and fine motor skills

  • Reproductive health tests for adolescents including pelvic exam, breast exam, and sexually transmitted disease (STD) tests

  • Vision and hearing screening to determine children’s vision acuity and hearing levels

What procedures and treatments does a pediatrician perform or order?

Pediatricians order or perform various procedures and treatments to manage children’s health conditions. Your pediatrician may provide referrals to pediatric surgeons and other pediatric specialists in some cases. Common procedures and treatments include:

  • Behavioral counseling related to behaviors including sleep, toilet training, and social interactions

  • Family planning prescriptions and treatments for adolescents including oral contraceptives, hormone patches and shots, and intrauterine devices (IUDs)

  • General health procedures including physical examination and immunization

  • Injury-related procedures including immobilizing sprains or setting small broken bones

  • Medication administration including antibiotic injections for serious bacterial infections, intravenous fluid for dehydration, and breathing treatments for asthma and croup

  • Mental health counseling for a broad range of disorders including bipolar disorder, depression, autism spectrum disorders, and eating disorders

  • Minor surgical procedures including circumcision, removal of earwax impactions, removal of foreign bodies such as splinters, wart removal, minor laceration stitches, and stich or staple removal

  • Nutrition and weight counseling for normal weight and growth

Pediatrician training and certification

A doctor may practice pediatrics without becoming board certified in the specialty. However, education, training, experience and certification are key elements in establishing a doctor’s level of competence. Board certification verifies that a doctor has completed residency training in the pediatrics and has passed competency examinations.

A board-certified pediatrician has earned certification in pediatrics by the American Board of Pediatrics or the American Osteopathic Board of Pediatrics.

A board-certified pediatrician has:

  • Graduated from medical school or a college of osteopathic medicine, earning an MD or DO degree

  • Completed specialized residency training in pediatrics

  • Passed a written certification exam that validates the doctor’s specialized knowledge and skills in pediatrics

To maintain board certification in pediatrics, a doctor must participate in an ongoing certification program.

Doctors who earn board certification in pediatrics can pursue certification in a subspecialty. Board certification in a subspecialty requires additional training beyond the residency program, as well as passing an exam. The additional training is sometimes known as a fellowship. Subspecialties of pediatrics include:

  • Adolescent medicine focuses on the physical, mental and emotional health of teenagers.

  • Child abuse pediatrics focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of child abuse, as well as child abuse investigation and prevention.

  • Developmental and behavioral pediatrics focuses on the diagnosis, management and prevention of children’s behavior problems and developmental challenges.

  • Hospice and palliative medicine focuses on preventing and relieving the suffering of children with critical or life-limiting illnesses, such as cancer.

  • Medical toxicology focuses on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of illnesses and injuries caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, drugs, radiation, and biological agents.

  • Neonatal and perinatal medicine focuses on the health of premature and newborn infants as well as women with high-risk pregnancies.

  • Neurodevelopmental disabilities subspecialty focuses on the diagnosis, evaluation and treatment of mental retardation, behavioral disorders, and cerebral palsy.

  • Pediatric cardiology focuses on children’s cardiovascular health including the heart and blood vessels.

  • Pediatric critical care medicine provides supportive care for critically ill and injured children, most often in intensive care units of hospitals.

  • Pediatric emergency medicine focuses on the treatment of injured or sick infants and children in emergency situations.

  • Pediatric endocrinology focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of children’s diseases and disorders involving the endocrine glands, which can include birth defects, diabetes, and thyroid disease.

  • Pediatric gastroenterology focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of children’s digestive system diseases and disorders, such as Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and lactose intolerance.

  • Pediatric hematology and oncology focuses on children’s diseases and disorders of the blood including leukemia, iron-deficiency anemia, and sickle cell disease.

  • Pediatric infectious diseases focuses on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of complex infectious diseases in children, such as meningitis, severe respiratory infections, and HIV.

  • Pediatric nephrology focuses on the kidney health of infants and children.

  • Pediatric pulmonology focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of lung diseases and disorders in children, such as interstitial lung disease, chronic bronchitis, and asthma.

  • Pediatric rheumatology focuses on diseases and injuries involving bones, muscles and joints such as arthritis, sports injuries, and scleroderma.

  • Pediatric transplant hepatology focuses on the care of children before and after they have liver transplants.

  • Sleep medicine focuses on diagnosing and managing health conditions that prevent sleep, occur during sleep, or result from a lack of sleep.

  • Sports medicine focuses on diagnosing, treating and preventing sports injuries as well as managing conditions that affect participation in sports and other physical activities.

Other specialty boards offer subspecialization in treating infants and children:

  • Pediatric anesthesiology focuses on managing children’s anesthesia and sedation during surgery and other procedures, such as imaging and biopsy procedures.

  • Pediatric dermatology focuses on treating diseases, disorders and injuries of children’s skin.

  • Pediatric otolaryngology focuses on diagnosing, managing and preventing ear, nose and throat problems in children.

  • Pediatric pathology focuses on finding the cause of disease and determining the ways in which diseases affect children’s physical health.

  • Pediatric radiology focuses on the interpretation of medical images, such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and ultrasounds, to diagnose and treat injury and disease in children.

  • Pediatric rehabilitation medicine focuses on the diagnosis, management and prevention of physical impairments in children.

  • Pediatric surgery focuses on the surgical treatment of diseases, disorders and conditions infants, children and adolescents.

  • Pediatric urology focuses on diagnosing and treating diseases, disorders and injuries involving children’s genitourinary system, such as urinary obstructions, genital malformations, and bladder control problems.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2017 Nov 17
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  3. Pediatrics. American Board of Medical Specialties. http://www.certificationmatters.org/abms-member-boards/pediatrics.aspx.   
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