Continuing Medical Education: The Home Edition

One of the first things I hear when people find out I’m a pediatrician is something to the effect of how it must make parenting easier. And the answer is that it really doesn’t. It might make it easier to decide things like whether or not a cut needs stitches.  But in the day-to-day nitty-gritty of parenting it doesn’t really help.

On the other hand, I do think being a mom has made me a better pediatrician. For one, it makes me more empathetic and compassionate. For example, when he was about 4 or 5 months old,  John rolled off the bed. It was the classic situation where I didn’t know he could roll, I was close but not close enough and I saw him do it. I knew as a pediatrician that he was fine but as a parent….let’s just say I was pretty freaked out. Now when people had called before that about babies rolling off the bed, I had quickly reassured them but didn’t really understand why they were so hysterical. Now I give them the same advice, but I understand their level of worry and I am able to be more caring and just plain nicer.

More importantly, being a parent has taught me that babies are all different and parents are all different. For most parenting issues there is more than one way to do it “right”. Many times figuring out the “right” way for the parent-child combo means some trial and error. The place I learned this the most was with sleep. Before I had kids, I pretty much recommended the standard “cry-it-out” method of sleep training. I didn’t totally like it, but I didn’t really have a lot else to offer and most of the other pediatricians I knew (most with kids of their own) swore by it.

Then we had John.  He wasn’t an “easy” baby that fell asleep without feeding or rocking. The cry-it-out method didn’t feel right to me as a parent. So we went with our gut instincts and he fell asleep always in our arms after being fed and rocked. We did all the “wrong” things but it ended up working fine. He’s six now and falls asleep fine on his own (although he likes to have his back scratched) and sleeps through the night soundly in his own bed (barring the occasional nightmare).

My approach to sleep then changed as a pediatrician. Now, I try to figure out what the parent’s personality is and what he/she wants rather than always recommending the same one size fits all approach. That idea has extended to other areas other than sleep. There are some things that I think everyone should follow (using car seats for example) but for a lot of parenting issues I see my job as more of a facilitator to help the parent figure out their own style and to offer suggestions for possible solutions, and not as someone who has the one right answer. Fast forward a few years and David came along and was a similar baby and our approach to sleep was pretty much the same with pretty much the same results.

Then we had Ruth. Up to the past week or so, she’s been fairly similar to her brothers. Likes to be snuggled, naps only in the sling if being held, sleeps a large part of the night with us, etc. We’ve done all those “wrong” things that have worked for us. However, recently she’s been really fussy with falling asleep even if she is in the sling or our arms. She’ll cry and cry and then finally exhaust herself and conk out.

Yesterday, I put her down in her bed while I was washing windows. She was happy for a while but then started to fuss. I would have gone and picked her up but I couldn’t because I had the windows unhooked and down. It took a few minutes to finish that task and by the time I did, she had fallen asleep on her own. With much less crying than she has had lately with us holding her. It was like a lightbulb went off…maybe this is what she’s been wanting. She napped pretty well and then the next time it was time for her to go to sleep, I tried it again. Same results. And again later in the day. Same results.

Now that was yesterday, and one thing parenting has taught me is that just because something worked yesterday doesn’t mean it will work again today. As I write this she is sleeping in the sling on me again. I admit I like her there.But I’ll also admit that having those times yesterday where she was not in the sling was also really nice. I noticed that she was in a really good mood when she was awake, if anything better than usual. H. and I laughed that maybe she’s thinking “Finally! I just needed some time alone.”

The lesson for me more and more is that each child is unique. That seems obvious. But it means that each time I think I have it figured out, I don’t. What works for one, might not be best for another. There is no cookie-cutter approach to parenting.

That’s a lesson that I think makes me a better parent. And also a better pediatrician.

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