7 Tips to Maximize Your Child’s Annual Physical

wellchildvisitIf your child is age three or older, and stays healthy, you may only see his or her pediatrician once a year. That’s the well child visit, a.k.a. the annual checkup or physical. Spring is a popular time—to get forms filled out before summer camp season, for example.

Make the most of it. After all, if you don’t raise a concern now, you might wind up waiting a full year before you ask it again.

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“Many parents of infants write down their questions and bring them to the baby’s check-up, but I don’t see that happening as much when kids get older,” says pediatrician Alanna Levine, MD,  spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Most parents have concerns about their child’s physical health, development, behavior, sleeping or eating habits or other important issues. Often a child’s doctor will bring up these subjects, but organizing your thoughts ahead of time, and writing down questions if necessary can be important.”

Here, 7 ways to get the most out of your child’s annual well-child visit:

  1. Set aside enough time so that you don’t feel rushed. “From check-in to check-out a typical well-child visit could be up to an hour,” says Dr. Levine. “You need time to sign in, let your child undress and be weighed and measured and have hearing and vision tests, and then for the doctor to do the physical exam, give vaccines and fill out forms.” Plus, emergencies may pop up that may call the pediatrician away, so bring things to entertain your child. “Set aside more time than you think you’ll need,” says Leviine.
  2. Pack your paperwork. It’s your job to organize health forms you’ll need to get filled out for school, sports teams, and summer programs. Bring ‘em. Seen an article that relates to your child’s health? Clip it or print it out and bring it—and make sure the source is clear. “The website may dictate how valid the information is,” says Levine. Has your child seen a specialist, had any surgeries or dental problems since the last well-child visit? “Bring that  information, whether it’s a letter from the doctor or hospital or a pathology report, or whatever is helpful,” she says.
  3. Write a list of all of the medicines your child takes and the doses, and ask the doctor if it is time to change your child’s dose of medication. (Doses of many medicines are based on a child’s weight, not age.) Include over-the-counter medicines as well as supplements and anything else your child takes regularly. If it’s easier, just pack the medicines in a paper bag and bring them in.
  4. If you have a particular health concern, keep a mini-diary of your child’s symptoms or habits. For example, if you think your child isn’t getting enough sleep, write down the times he fell asleep and awoke for a week. Not sure your kid is pooping frequently enough? Keep note of the days and times he or she poops. “Often when a parent comes in with a child complaining of constipation or headaches or other chronic problem, I will say, ‘Make a diary and then make a re-check appointment, and we’ll see if we can connect the dots,’” says Levine. “If a parent does that ahead of time, it facilitates things.”
  5. Let your children speak up, too. Talk to your kids ahead of time about anything on their minds, and make it clear that if they have certain questions or concerns they want to discuss with the doctor, they should feel free to talk with the doctor.
  6. Be prepared to leave the room. “Between ages 12 and 14 many children begin to feel more comfortable during a physical exam if their parents leave the room,” says Levine. “Typically I talk together with parent and child at the start of the check-up when I am taking the child’s health history, because kids may forget certain things or feel uncomfortable talking them. Then I ask the parent to leave the room and I talk privately to the child and do the physical exam privately, and then we all reconvene at the end. I explain to both the parent and child that a lot of what we talk about alone is confidential and unless the child is at risk of hurting himself or somebody else, I’m not going to break their confidence. I want kids to feel that it’s safe for them to tell me things.”
  7. Find out how to ask follow-up questions. As soon as you get home, you remember a question you meant to ask. What to do? Ask the doctor or nurse about the doctor’s policy. Some doctors prefer to answer quick questions by email, and you may even be connected through an electronic system for secure communications. Others have set hours where you can call and speak directly to the doctor or nurse.

To learn more about well-baby and well-child visits, including a recommended schedule, see the American Academy of Pediatric’s Well Child Care page.

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Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based writer who specializes in health and parenting topics.