The Importance of Childhood Immunizations and Well-Child Visits

A Conversation with a North Dakota Pediatrician: The Importance of Childhood Immunizations and Well-Child Visits

Kylie Hall is a mother of two and the Operations Director of the North Dakota State University Center for Immunization Research and Education. For this post, she interviewed Dr. Rebecca Bakke about the importance of infant immunizations and well-child visits. Dr. Bakke is a mom of four and a pediatrician in Fargo.

Kylie: Dr. Bakke, as a mom with two young children, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last five years in our pediatrician’s office for well-child visits. For all the parents out there and the soon-to-be parents, can you explain well-child visits and why they are so important?

Dr. Bakke: Absolutely. Well-child visits are your child’s regularly scheduled doctor’s appointments. It’s an opportunity for your child’s provider (whether it be a pediatrician, a family medicine doctor, a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner) to check up on the health of your child and make sure he or she is growing and developing normally.

Kylie: I think many people think of well-child visits as only for babies and young children. How often should children come in for well-visits? Is there an age when well-child visits can stop?

Dr. Bakke: The standard well-child visit schedule includes visits from the time babies are a few days old all the way through adolescence. There are more visits when children are younger because development happens rapidly during these years. As children get older, we like to see them at least once a year.

Kylie: What kinds of things do you assess when a child comes in for a well-visit?

Dr. Bakke: It depends on your child’s age. We assess things like sleep and nutritional status at every visit. With younger children, we pay close attention to developmental milestones, including language development, problem-solving and motor skills. As children enter school and into their teenage years, we might discuss things like mental health or age-based safety tips, like wearing a helmet when riding a bike or wearing a seatbelt when getting a driver’s license! But it’s not just about my checklist for the appointment.

Well-child visits are also an opportunity for parents to ask us questions. It could be anything from tips for getting picky eaters to eat more vegetables to how to handle temper tantrums and everything in between!

Kylie: Speaking from experience, in a parent’s busy world, it’s really easy to let a well-child visit fall to the backburner. Can you explain why it is so important for children to make their well-child visits, even if parents think their child is healthy?

Dr. Bakke: For one, early intervention is key. Many common developmental delays are discovered during well-child visits, and early intervention makes a big difference in getting your child the support they need before something small turns into a bigger problem.

We also want to establish trust between providers and patients at an early age. This is a great opportunity for your child to learn about health and know we, as health care providers, are here for them.

Finally, children should attend well-child visits to stay up to date on routine immunizations. At every visit, we assess a child’s vaccination status. Many well-child visits coincide with the routine immunization schedule. Completing the recommended well-child visits can help your child stay up to date on their immunizations, too.

Kylie: Let’s talk a little more about childhood immunizations. There are a number of vaccines required during those first years of life – including vaccines against polio, measles, pertussis and chickenpox. Why are these vaccines so important?

Dr. Bakke: Each vaccine that we give prevents a disease that still circulates in the world today, and these diseases can harm us if we are not protected by vaccination. These diseases used to cause severe illness, hospitalization and even death in many children each year, but now, we can prevent them with safe and effective vaccines. While many of these diseases don’t regularly circulate in the United States, they are only a plane ride away.

We also know that children who are not protected by vaccines are more likely to get diseases like measles or whooping cough. These diseases can be very serious, especially for babies and young children. Unfortunately, in the last ten years, there have been large outbreaks of these diseases, mostly in communities that have low vaccination rates.

Kylie: For the soon-to-be parents, what would you tell them about well-visits and routine immunizations?

Dr. Bakke: Making sure your child sees their health care provider for both well-child visits and routine immunizations is one of the best ways to keep them healthy. Familiarize yourself with the vaccine schedule, so if you have any questions, you can be prepared. Your child will get their first vaccine right after birth, but most vaccines are given between two months and 18 months. It might seem like a lot of vaccines in a short period of time, but parents can be confident that the recommended schedule is designed to safely give your child the best protection against the diseases they prevent, and it’s important to stay on track. It’s also important to make sure your kids are up to date as they get older, as there are vaccine requirements for childcare and school.

Kylie: There’s a lot of information out there about vaccines, and it can be hard to know what is true and who to trust. What is your advice to new parents if they have questions about vaccines?

Dr. Bakke: Vaccines are a huge part of my practice, and I think most pediatricians would say the same. I recommend that all of my patients follow the routine childhood immunization schedule to help keep them healthy and free of vaccine-preventable diseases, but I also know there’s a lot of conflicting information about vaccines, particularly online.

I encourage parents to check the credibility of online sources. Consider who is running a website and what his/her credentials are. Consider where the information is coming from and check the sources. Ask yourself, “Is the person trying to sell me something?” and be wary if the answer is yes.

One of my deeply held beliefs is that all parents want to do what is best for the health and well-being of their children. I want that too. We are on the same team. It is always okay to ask questions and request more information. Having a trusting relationship with my patients and their families is what makes my job so fulfilling and fun.

Kylie: Last one, Dr. Bakke! I’m going back to the original topic of well-child visits. How can parents prepare for well-child visits?

Dr. Bakke: Come to your well-child visits with a list of questions, concerns or even accomplishments! That helps set the stage for the appointment and make sure we get to what you want to talk about. After all, this is your child’s visit and your child’s health. If there’s any paperwork sent to you ahead of time (like an Ages and Stages Questionnaire), we ask that you fill that out and bring it with you to your appointment so we can better gauge your child’s growth and development.

Kylie: Thank you for your time and insight, Dr. Bakke!