Article at a Glance

  • Report shows learning about child development and health has a measurable effect on outcomes.
  • Pediatricians are children’s health experts that want to educate parents.
  • Well-child visits are an opportunity for parents to get information and strategies they’ll soon need.

As parents, we want our children to get the best possible health care. Some of us base our choice of providers on impressive resumes, others on proximity or convenience, and still others on the recommendations of trusted friends and family.

But a new report from the National Academy of Sciences points to another criterion that new parents may want to consider—a provider that’s an educational partner.

The report, Parenting Matters, examined dozens of studies and outreach programs over recent decades. They concluded that parental education was the key component of intervention successes across the spectrum of children’s health issues.

Some ways teaching parents improved outcomes for kids and families:

  • Parents coached in soothing and responding to infant cues reported better sleep patterns and fewer emergency medical visits.
  • Children whose mothers knew more about child development tested higher on IQ tests and had fewer behavioral problems.
  • First-time fathers taught to recognize infant cues demonstrated better parenting techniques months later.
  • Parents educated about appropriate nutrition, screen time, and activity levels had children who ate fewer sweets and spent less time in front of televisions.

Simply put, the report showed that the more parents knew about child development, health, and safety; the more likely they were to promote practices that encouraged all three.

How do I learn more about my child’s health and development?

It can be tempting to skip a well-child visit or just get a scheduled immunization from a clinic nearby. But remember, those well-child visits are as much for your benefit and support as for your child’s. Visits provide an opportunity for you to get the skills, resources, and information you’ll need for the months to come. Bring your list of questions and come prepared to take notes.

Regular visits at key developmental stages also give your pediatrician—a highly trained children’s health specialist—a chance to detect any physical, developmental, or emotional problems your child may be exhibiting. Because brain development happens so rapidly in a child’s first eight years, these checkups are the primary safety net for the early detection of problems.

How we interact with our kids between birth and third grade lays the groundwork for their social, emotional and cognitive development, so it’s especially important to have support and education during these years. Luckily, teaching parents is one way pediatricians are trained to provide better outcomes for kids.

Some teachable skills the report highlighted:

  • Responsiveness: Build emotionally healthy kids by learning to tune-in to infants’ and young children’s facial expressions and by making an effort to be present, react, and interact. But these techniques aren’t always obvious to parents of infants.
  • Verbalizing: Speaking with young children about a variety of topics beyond just “no” and “stop that” is essential to building language. Discussing events as they unfold or sharing opinions on books and television programs are some ways to foster cognitive and social development and model the skill of expressing opinions constructively.
  • Understanding Developmental Milestones: Knowing what is “normal” at certain ages and how to get help when parents suspect a problem helps with both early detection and intervention for learning disabilities and behavioral problems.
  • Safety: Attending well-child visits improves the odds of parents receiving appropriate guidance on safe sleep, car seats, helmet use, gun safety, and other topics that arise at different ages.
  • Seeking Support: Choosing services like daycare, preschool, and therapies based on proximity or the recommendations of friends is not always the best option. The report found many parents were unaware of other resources that were available to them.
  • Nutrition: The report found food assistance programs that include nutritional education result in children with better diets than programs that supply only food. Even in more affluent homes, practical guidance from pediatricians can help parents work with picky appetites to cover kids’ nutritional bases.

Your family pediatrician should be more than “just a doctor,” so not just any doctor will do. Find one that will be a resource for education and support in the wilds of parenting.

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