Dr. Jennifer Arnold of "The Little Couple" on Why Mother Knows Best

Health & Wellness on 10.18.11
Guest Contributor bio

Photo: DCL

As a physician and former child patient, I can confidently say that no matter how talented, experienced or wise you are as a doctor, no one knows a newborn, infant, or child better than the parent! As a neonatologist, I take care of critically ill newborns. Some of our babies come into my care straight from the delivery room, so I learned very quickly that Mom always knows best. Whether a mom just delivered her baby or is bringing her baby into the hospital weeks later, she somehow knows what is "normal" and "not normal" for her baby.  The key to identifying medical issues and diagnoses is noticing that something is not right -- and no one is in a better position than a mother to do this. 

The Story of Baby Charlie

Baby Charlie was a full-term, healthy newborn who was born to a mother that opted to give him up for adoption. His adopted mom met him in the first 24 hours after birth. Charlie's evaluation in the newborn nursery had been fine. He had been feeding well, he had no signs of jaundice, and he had a normal newborn physical examination. He went home three days later with his parents. After 24 hours of being home, Charlie's mom noticed something had changed: He seemed more tired, he wasn't feeding as well, and at one point his mother had to wake him up to feed him (a sign that something is wrong in a newborn).

Charlie's mother did not waste any time going to see the pediatrician. At the pediatrician's office, everything looked good, but Charlie's mom was steadfast and explained her concerns with Charlie's behavior. After further evaluation, Charlie's pediatrician thought she heard a heart murmur. A heart murmur can be normal or abnormal: A murmur just means that sound of blood pumping through the heart can be heard by listening with a stethoscope. Some people have murmurs, but normal hearts. Sometimes, however a murmur can be a sign of a structural abnormality of the heart.

Because Charlie's mom was so insistent that something was different with Charlie, his pediatrician took the murmur seriously and sent him for an ultrasound of the heart -- called an echocardiogram. The echocardiogram showed that Charlie had a structural abnormality of the heart called a coarctation, or narrowing of the aorta. The aorta is the largest blood vessel in the body and is responsible for sending oxygenated blood from the heart to the entire body.  If it is too narrow, not enough blood flow can go to a baby's organs and body, creating a life-threatening condition that requires surgery to repair. Often, coarctation of the aorta is not identified until 3-5 days after birth (when another vessel, the ductus arteriosus, which allows an alternative route for blood flow, closes). Charlie's mom was able to identify his behavioral changes quickly enough that Charlie was admitted to our NICU, stabilized, and had surgery that saved his life. 

Make Your Case

While doctors are trained experts who can identify -- and hopefully cure -- diseases in babies and children, they are ultimately relying on feedback and information from parents. Children, especially babies, can't tell you what is hurting, and being a pediatrician or neonatologist involves a lot of detective work. Information from a parent can save your baby's life.  

I think it is important as a parent to feel empowered to not let others brush off your worries. "White Coat Syndrome" can deter patients and parents from voicing their concerns. Lots of people are afraid of what the doctor will say and so often don't offer up information, but with growing demands on doctors and decreasing time with patients, doctors may not ask the right questions to get all the information they need. A physician is counting on your history of what's going on, so you can't be afraid to disclose everything and anything. 

When I was a patient during my childhood, I would be afraid to report concerns because I feared I was being a hypochondriac, or because I was afraid I might find something was really wrong. My mother, however, was never afraid to speak up because very early on, my very wise and caring orthopedic surgeon told my mother, "Moms always know best. Never second guess your instincts."  

Although I am not yet a parent myself, I learned this lesson before I became a physician as a result of the insight of my own doctor and mother. My advice to parents now is to always ask questions, particularly if something doesn't feel right. Trust your instincts always, and don't be afraid to discuss any concerns at all with your physician. Even when a baby is in the NICU, I know that my patients' parents know their babies better than I or anyone else ever could. Doctors and nurses have the training to heal, but, no one is better suited to identify what needs healing better than a mom or dad.

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