What Is a Developmental Pediatrician?
Developmental-behavioral pediatricians (also known as developmental pediatricians) specialize in evaluating and treating infants, children, and young adults with developmental delays, behavioral challenges, learning disabilities, and more. A developmental pediatrician can play a central role in your child’s overall care, providing guidance, referrals, and support, and helping coordinate care with your child’s other physicians, therapists, and educators.
Unlike a general pediatrician, developmental pediatricians do not provide routine medical care or yearly check-ups. Instead, they focus on assessing, diagnosing, and treating children who experience or are at risk of developmental delays as well as issues with speech, motor, and social skills. According to LA-based developmental-behavioral pediatrician Dr. Josh Mandelberg, M.D., F.A.A.P., the approach will change depending on the child’s age, diagnoses, and individual needs.
“When children are school-aged, we might look at issues of learning or attention,” Mandelberg explains. “We might assess kids for issues of anxiety or other social-emotional issues. We also see kids who have had other challenges — for example, children who were born prematurely or spent time in the NICU, so they may be at risk of having a developmental issue.”
What conditions do developmental pediatricians diagnose and treat?
A developmental pediatrician can diagnose and treat a wide array of developmental and behavioral conditions, including:
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Regulatory disorders like sleep disorders, feeding difficulties, and delayed toilet training
- Delayed development in speech, language, motor skills, and cognitive functioning
- Learning disorders
- Tics and Tourette syndrome
- Down syndrome, Turner syndrome, and other genetic conditions that affect child development
- Behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
Typically, developmental pediatricians will work to assemble a whole picture of your child’s health and medical history, including assessments done in their office, observations made during appointments with your child, assessments performed by other doctors, reports from parents and teachers, reports from private therapists, school documents including your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), and — if you live in California — your Regional Center's Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). You should receive a list from your developmental pediatrician’s office of which documents you will need to bring to your first appointment.
Developmental pediatricians work with families to develop a plan of care to address developmental concerns, and encourage parents of young children to track their child’s developmental process and make note of any delayed milestones or other related issues. Research shows that early intervention leads to more positive outcomes in children with developmental disabilities — and it’s important to start early. As noted by the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center, “intervention is likely to be more effective and less costly when it is provided earlier in life rather than later.”
While there is a focus on early intervention (typically from toddlers to age five), some developmental pediatricians may also work with older children and adolescents. Dr. Mandelberg notes that although he mostly works with toddlers through elementary school-aged children, “different developmental pediatricians might have certain ages or conditions that they work with more prevalently. I see kids from toddlers, occasionally infants, all the way up to some college students.”
What services do developmental pediatricians provide?
Some of the services developmental pediatricians provide include the following:
- Evaluations to help diagnose complex issues
- Ongoing assessments
- Consultations with other professionals involved in your child’s care
- An overall plan of care for your child (and monitoring the plan of care)
- Suggested and prioritized treatments
- Recommendations for other professionals who can assist with ongoing treatment
- Medication (prescribing and monitoring)
- Recommendations for accommodations and modifications, as well as therapies within and outside of school
A developmental pediatrician may also refer your child to a different specialist for services outside of their scope, such as genetic testing. They can also function as an advocate in a school setting, with insurance companies, and helping connect families with government-funded services.
Because a developmental pediatrician will likely only see your child for a few hours at a time, it’s important to share your child’s overall plan of care with their therapists, teachers, doctors, and other people involved in their life to better work toward their therapeutic goals outside of the doctor’s office. Dr. Mandelberg notes that this sort of “homework” can make early intervention more effective. Dr. Mandelberg adds that for this reason, it’s important to keep big-picture goals in mind when building a child’s therapy team and find therapists who prioritize collaboration with parents and other therapists and providers. ”It’s important for therapists to try to involve parents and caregivers as much as possible, and to coordinate with teachers,” he says.
How do I find a developmental pediatrician?
There are several resources for finding a developmental pediatrician, according to Special Learning, Inc.:
- Ask for referrals from the child’s pediatrician.
- Your child’s general pediatrician might be the first to notice signs or symptoms that suggest your child would benefit from having a consultation and evaluation from a specialist, such as a developmental pediatrician.
- Ask local hospitals or clinics for a list of developmental pediatricians in your community.
- Consider asking close family members and friends as a way to begin your search for the best fit for your child. Friends and family with children who have developmental delays or disabilities are often great resources.
- Your child’s school guidance counselor might also be able to provide recommendations.
- Support groups might be able to offer suggestions for developmental pediatricians, such as Regional Center, social media support groups, and community support groups.
Questions to ask in your search for a developmental pediatrician
Credentials and experience
You can ask for the credentials of the developmental pediatricians you are considering for your child. According to HealthyChildren.org, the basic qualifications typically include four years of medical school, three years of residency training in pediatrics, board certification in pediatrics, and additional subspeciality training in developmental/behavioral pediatrics. You can also ask about their specific areas of training and how many years of experience they have.
Cost and insurance
Consider asking the following questions of the developmental pediatrician:
- What is the cost of the initial assessment and ongoing appointments?
- Do you contract with my insurance plan?
- Do you assist with pre-authorizations if in-network?
- Will your office generate a superbill that I can submit to my insurance for reimbursement if out-of-network?
- Note: Our Director of Health Plan Advocacy Services explains that out-of-network allowed amounts are often greatly reduced from the provider’s full billed amount. If your plan covers 60% out-of-network, you will see 60% of that lower allowed amount, not 60% of what you actually paid the provider. Furthermore, any reimbursement would first apply to any out-of-network deductible.
Availability and compatibility
Selecting a developmental pediatrician is similar to finding any provider that will work closely with your family, such as a general pediatrician, counselor, or therapist. You’ll want to know in advance that the provider will be compatible with your availability and methods of communication, and that they will be able to cultivate a good doctor-client relationship. Here are some questions you can ask:
What is the wait time for the initial visit and assessment?
- It’s typical for wait times to be between 3 to 6 months for an initial visit. If there is a long wait time before the pediatrician can see your child, you might consider asking if they can add you to the waiting list for cancelations. In addition, you may check in every so often to see if any appointments have been canceled. Providing all of the requested documentation in a timely fashion can help with this process.
- What method of communication does the doctor prefer?
- If you have questions or follow-up concerns post-evaluation or during treatment, what method of communication does the doctor use?
- Will you have to make an appointment every time you want to speak to the doctor, or are phone calls and emails an option?
- What are the doctor’s typical days and office hours?
- Are you able to speak directly with the developmental pediatrician prior to making an appointment?
To read more about early intervention, check out our article series, Mapping the Journey from Birth to Kindergarten: The 4 Ws of Early Intervention.