Pediatrician or Family Doctor? How to Decide

Medically Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on April 01, 2024
3 min read

Both pediatricians and family doctors are qualified to take care of children. So how do you decide which type of doctor is right for you?

Consider your child's age and health needs, as well as the health needs of other family members. Your finances, location, and plans for the future could affect your decision, too. Most important is that you find someone you feel comfortable with and trust to help you make decisions about your child's well-being.

Pediatricians are primary care doctors who specialize in children's health, including physical, mental, and social health. To be a pediatrician, doctors attend 4 years of medical school and spend 3 years studying pediatrics as medical residents.

They will see your child multiple times a year until age 4, and at least once a year after that for annual physicals and sick visits. To be board-certified, a pediatrician must pass an exam from the American Board of Pediatrics. They also retake the exam every 7 years to stay certified and show they're on top of the most recent children's health information.

A family doctor is also a primary care doctor. They do their residency in a variety of medical fields in addition to pediatrics, including internal medicine and gynecology. They're certified through the American Board of Family Medicine to care for people of any age or gender. Like pediatricians, they must take continuing education classes and retake their certification test.

Since their focus is on children, they may be better at talking to kids on their level and to parents about delicate, personal issues with sensitivity and understanding, as well as managing more complex pediatric conditions.

Pediatricians often "do rounds" in hospitals, so your doctor could see your baby after delivery and know their history from day one. Usually a young adult will switch to a  family doctor by the time they're 18 years old.

Some pediatricians don't offer gynecological care for girls.

One doctor can treat your whole family. When you and your child are both sick, you can go to the same doctor together. It may save quite a few trips over the years.

A family doctor that sees you all may be more aware of issues that could affect the whole family. They may be more familiar with everyone's medical history, too.

One drawback of a family doctor is that they don't spend as much time in training to treat children and don't spend as much time caring for children as a pediatrician does .Family physicians spend less time year over year treating children, a 2019 study found. 

But when your child becomes an adult, they can continue seeing the same doctor. That means their health care provider will have firsthand knowledge of their medical history and an established relationship built over the years. If you think you'll be moving before your child grows up, maybe this won't be as important to you.

Or perhaps your child is older and would be more comfortable being around adults at the office rather than "little kids."

For a child born as a preemie, with a birth defect, or who has other health concerns, you may want to choose a pediatrician.

Some babies need to see a pediatric specialist, a doctor focused on a particular area of health for children. For example, child with a heart condition may benefit from working with a pediatric cardiologist.

As with choosing any type of doctor, you should also weigh the location and availability of the office.

What time does it open and close, and do those hours agree with your schedule? Is it close to other doctors that your family members see? Can you get tests there, like lab work, X-rays, and MRIs?

Ask what happens if you have a question or need care after-hours or when your doctor isn't available. A shared practice with multiple doctors could provide a built-in backup. Or there may be another staff member, like a nurse practitioner or physician assistant, who can answer non-urgent questions and provide general care.

Find out if there's a difference in what's covered by your health insurance plan for each type of doctor or in what the co-pay is. And make sure the specific doctor you're interested in is in the plan's network of doctors.

Also see if the testing lab and hospital the doctor uses are covered by your insurance.