Seattle Mama Doc

A blog by Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson.

A mom, a pediatrician, and her insights about keeping your kids healthy.

Modern Parenthood, Vaccines, And Myth With Mnookin

panicThis Tuesday evening, I’m joining Seth Mnookin at Town Hall in Seattle to discuss vaccines, modern parenthood, and (mis)information about vaccinations online. Although you may know Seth Mnookin secondary to his crucial role in the Boston Marathon Bombings story this past week, at his other day job he’s the co-director of the graduate program in science writing at MIT. He’ll be here in Seattle because he is also the author of a powerful book, Panic Virus, that details the history of vaccine hesitancy in the US.

A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear.

Although the book sits on the nonfiction shelf, it reads like a thriller. Think Contagion meets John le Carre´.  I’m not exaggerating here: when I first read the book 2 years ago, I pulled a near-all-nighter because I couldn’t put it down. I don’t think that’s because I’m a pediatrician, I believe I couldn’t put it down because I’m a mom.

I met Seth nearly 2 years ago and he signed my scribbled-in copy of his extraordinary book. Panic Virus changed my understanding of vaccine hesitancy. There are parts of the book that caused my stomach to drop and certainly parts of the book that made me worry. Read full post »

Beads Of Courage

beads of courageI met Lowie backstage, about an hour before my own talk earlier this month. I had butterflies in my stomach for all sorts of reasons. I’d read about him prior to arriving and perused the blog he’s written about his daughter’s cancer and his family’s journey during her life and death (you can have Google translate it into English). It was so nice to meet him.

I was really looking forward to his talk although a part of me knew I’d need to brace myself, dig fingernails deep into my legs and let my throat tighten when he started to speak. I knew his words would fill my eyes with tears.

His story detailing Guusje’s voice and needs during her cancer treatment did, of course, cause me to cry. But the images he shared also gave me great hope. Learning about his daughter’s life implored me to share his lessons. I realized we could share the beads of courage widely and put these beads in the hands of other families everywhere. You know we can learn a lot from those in the Netherlands — they did just top this list from UNICEF for child well-being for the wealthiest countries on planet Earth.

Beads of Courage

In the Netherlands when a child is diagnosed with cancer, they immediately spell out their name with beads and then chronicle their courage each and every day in order on a string. Each day of chemo, each radiation treatment, each terrible, bad day (green), and each good day gets documented, strung up in line, and valued. A ledger and journal of the courage a child maintains as they fight for life.

To me it seems obvious that these beads of courage can represent a child’s endurance, perseverance, experience, and will. A hand-held way for a child to see where they are and where they’ve been. Yet reflecting on and re-watching Lowie’s talk I realized that more, these beads can represent the wishes and life experience of a child who courageously fights for life during a chronic or life-threatening disease in a health care environment.

These beads can be a tactile acknowledgement of  humanism  in health care. Read full post »

Boston Marathon

Another tragedy in our country today has us all bracing ourselves. I’m so sorry to hear about this horrific tragedy at the Boston Marathon and so hopeful that the chaos quickly comes to a close and injuries are rapidly treated with compassion.

I’m not sharing the news about the bombing with my boys. I’ve been following live coverage quietly on Twitter but we won’t be turning on the television tonight.  My boys are very young and so it’s easier to insulate them from the news. I know it’s not so easy as children age and many parents find themselves overwhelmed tonight.

It is really hard to turn the news off, log off Twitter, and return back to life as normal after we hear this kind of news. The randomness of this bombing again has us shaken. I’ve found this particularly gruesome as it was at such a symbolic and nearly sacred place…

The end of a marathon finish line is truly an inspiring and cooperative place.

As I sort out my own emotions, I’m doing my best to hold onto the image I just read about on Twitter—there are runners that kept running past the finish line straight to Mass General to donate blood.

We are a wonderful people in a wonderful country steeped with love. We are full of generosity. We can continue to see this and remind our families as we hold onto hope. So many helpers around…

Helping Children Tonight

  • Turn off the television and/or radio when you can if children are around. 
  • Remember young children, under age 8, have a difficult time sorting out reality from fantasy and may not understand the true distance between you and Boston.
  • Tips for talking with your children about tragedies from Healthy Children.
  • As the details get sorted out, remember it’s okay to tell children you don’t know why this happened or how.
  • More than anything, tell children the truth but avoid horrific details, numbers, and gruesome images that are circulating online whenever possible.
  • Here’s a very good blog post from my friend Dr Claire McCarthy who is a pediatrician in Boston on supporting children and talking about tragedy as this unfolds.

A Voice For Vaccines

Karen ErnstThis is a guest blog from Karen Ernst. Karen is the mother of three boys and a military wife.  She sometimes teaches English and enjoys advocating for and working with children. She is the co-leader of Voices for Vaccines and one of the founders of the Minnesota Childhood Immunization Coalition.


The preschool class party was one of the last hurrahs for my then five year old. The entire family attended, including our ten-day old newborn, whose only interest was nursing. His lack of other interests turned out to be good fortune because another mother-son duo at the party were contagious with chicken pox and began showing symptoms the day after the party. Had the mother held my newborn or the child played with him, the results could have been fatal for our son.

Having immunized my older child, who played with his contagious friend, I was relieved that no one in our home contracted chicken pox and no one passed it on to our new baby.

While I was angry when the mother revealed that she’d purposely left her son unvaccinated against chicken pox, I felt proud that I had chosen well, I had protected both my children, and I had understood and agreed with what public health officials had proposed: that children need the varicella vaccine. I had both done what I was supposed to, and nothing bad happened. So that’s the end of the story, right?

Read full post »

You Can Help Prevent Shaken Babies

Babies get shaken most after periods of inconsolable crying. Since April is Child Abuse Prevention month, here’s some information on abusive head trauma (previously know as “shaken baby syndrome”) and ways you can help support new parents with babies who cry.

All babies cry. But some babies cry more (see the graph in the video). Babies do follow predictable patterns in crying: most babies start crying around 2 weeks of age and their crying peaks by 2 months, then tends to resolve around 3 to 4 months of age. But there are some babies who simply cry more than others. Dr Ronald Barr has researched crying in infants for over 30 years and developed the PURPLE period of crying based off data on all types of infants. Learning about the PURPLE period so you can help reassure families that they aren’t doing ANYTHING WRONG when they have a fussy baby. It’s okay that a baby fusses and cries, particularly at peak times (around 2 months of age, in the evening), our job as parents and community members is to support parents dealing with this fussiness.

Crying is aggravating to all of us. When I spoke with Dr Ken Feldman, a pediatrician and expert in shaken baby syndrome (now called abusive head trauma), he reminded me of a startling finding. He mentioned a North Carolina study found that 20% of parents surveyed admitted to shaking a baby out of frustration at some point.

You’re not alone if you’ve felt overwhelmed while caring for a cranky baby.

Take turns soothing fussy babies. Put babies in their cribs on their backs if you get really frustrated. It’s always okay to walk away from a really cranky baby for a 10-15 minute break!

Read full post »

Chickenpox Parties

pox party de-identifiedToday a Seattle mom advertised on an online parenting community that both of her children had chickenpox and then invited (non-vaccinated) children over for exposure. That’s the invite from 1:19pm today.

It turns out people are still having chickenpox parties.

Part of this makes my head spin. I just don’t get it, despite having had many families in my practice decline or hesitate or delay the chickenpox shot. I don’t think parents know what virus they are dealing with. After I posted this invitation on Twitter, I had physicians all over the country sharing stories (some included below).

Chickenpox can cause serious infection complications and rarely it can be lethal. Before the vaccine was approved and put into use in 1995, hundreds of children and adults died in this country every year from chickenpox and thousands were hospitalized. Although most young children get chickenpox and recover (only left with pox or scars) some children develop life-threatening secondary infections. Some children develop severe pneumonia (1 in 1000 children), some develop brain infections, and some children develop flesh-eating bacterial infections in their scabs that can even be fatal.

There is a safe, highly effective vaccine for chickenpox: Varicella Vaccine.

After I saw the pox party invite this afternoon I became slightly enraged. I mean, there are NUMEROUS children and adults in our community immunosuppressed and/or on chemo that could develop life-ending complications if exposed to varicella. And some families are intentionally exposing their children to a potentially harmful infection. After 2 doses of the chickenpox shot (varicella) 99% of patients are immune to chickenpox. Although some children can get chicken pox once vaccinated, they typically only have a few pox and do not develop severe side effects or die.

The pox party just shows me how much work we have to do to build trust in vaccines and vaccine-safety. My boys have both had 2 doses of the varicella vaccine. I’m thrilled they are protected and unlikely to ever get chickenpox or spread it to a community member who could be more at risk. They likely won’t get shingles, either.

Chickenpox Facts & Stats:

  • Varicella shots hurt upon injection (children tell me it really stings). We give the shot twice, once at 1 year of age and once at 4 years of age. The shot can commonly cause arm soreness and lowgrade fever. In less than 5% of children, a small rash develops, often around the site of the shot. That’s a good sign the immune system is being triggered to fight off future infections. The rash that can develop after the shot is not contagious. Read full post »

Delicious Screen Time

Common Sense Media Screen Image http://www.commonsensemedia.org/mobile-app-reviews/roxies-maze-ing-vacation-adventure

Common Sense Media Screen Image http://www.commonsensemedia.org/mobile-app-reviews/roxies-maze-ing-vacation-adventure

It’s been a relief to realize that there is great online content for my 6 year-old. He still doesn’t use the computer (outside of school). The main reason, I’ve not been in a rush to enmesh him in technology. It’s clear he’ll catch on fast when it becomes important to him. Previously when reading up about apps and games, I always felt like nothing suited his timid-conflict-averse mentality. So when we found a couple beautiful apps last night, I was pumped. Screens can be delicious. Later this week, my 6 year-old and I set off on a trip alone, just the two of us. He’s joining me on a work trip to The Netherlands (speaking here) and although real books will tide him over at times, there is somewhat of a saving grace in the fact that the iPad exists.

I’m seriously thrilled. I can’t wait for this special trip with my son and this time together.

But I’m also normal– there are parts of me very cognizant of the 10+ hour plane trip ahead of us. As a working mom on a working trip, he’ll be stuck amidst a few meetings. On the plane, we’ll read books, work on his journal, yet ultimately I’ll need to plug into my work for a few hours. When I do so, I’m thrilled that the iPad will be on his lap. Living in 2013 does have unique parenting luxuries and one of them is some of the brilliant screens out there. Screens can be great fun for us all when we do it right.

Last night, my husband and I spent some time online reading about good apps to load. We were sincerely delighted to find a couple gems (see below). We ended up completely entranced by 2 apps, in particular. I can’t wait to show these to my 6 year-old on Thursday.

Thoughts On Apps For Young Children:

  • I love using Common Sense Media to learn about new apps, games, movies, and books. Not only do they provide age-based filters for search, they detail enough about the platforms that I can really cater to my kids’ individual interests and limitations (my 6 year-old is scared of most movies and really hates any kind of conflict). You can search by ages (if you’ve got more than 1 child with access to a device) or by interest (dinosaurs, sports, or magic) and you can also just quickly browse the “editor’s picks.” Read full post »

Why Do Babies Wake Up At Night?

Most babies wake up at night. And although some superhero babies sleep 10-12 hours straight starting around 3-4 months of age, most infants wake up during the night and cry out for their parents. There are scientific reasons and some developmental and behavioral explanations for these awakenings. I spoke with my friend Dr Maida Chen, a pediatric pulmonologist, mother to three, and director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center to put a list together regarding why babies do this. Leave questions and comments below if we can explain more. I’ll author a follow-up blog on ways you can help your baby when they wake up, too.

10 Reasons Babies Wake Up At Night:

  1. Sleep Cycle: Babies wake up during the night primarily because their brain waves shift and change cycles as they move from REM (rapid eye movement) sleep to other stages of non-REM sleep. The different wave patterns our brains make during certain periods define these sleep cycles or “stages” of sleep. As babies move from one stage of sleep to another during the night, they transition. In that transition, many babies will awaken. Sometimes they call out or cry. Sometimes they wake hungry. It’s normal for babies (and adults) to wake 4-5 times a night during these times of transition. However, most adults wake up and then fall back to sleep so rapidly that we rarely remember the awakening. At 4 months of age, many parents notice awakenings after a first chunk of deeper sleep. This is normal, and often due to development of delta wave sleep (deep sleep). The trick for parents is to do less and less as each month of infancy unfolds during these awakenings; we want to help our babies self-soothe more and more independently (without our help) during these awakenings so that sleeping through the night becomes a reality.      Read full post »

Chopsticks

Chopsticks

You don’t need much to play a duet if you know a piano player.

Although my boys don’t play piano, I was reminded this weekend how children really sponge-up opportunity. They’ll try most anything and catch on faster than we do. After we finished a delivery to my mom, our 6 year-old sat down at her piano. A few minutes later he was playing a Chopsticks duet, my mom providing the accompaniment.

Count to 6 and have 2 fingers– it’s possible. Perhaps he is a piano player, perhaps it’s time for lessons.

This was just another reminder that we often don’t plan the most precious moments of our day.

Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.
- Maria Montessori

Children With Gay Parents

http://www.people-press.org/2013/03/20/growing-support-for-gay-marriage-changed-minds-and-changing-demographics/

Headlines like, “Children Do Better with Committed Parents,” excite me. I feel proud to live in a time where we’re advancing understanding and safety for children and their health–I love being a part of it. Over the past decade(s) there have been big shifts here in the US. The Pew Research Center published data today that there has been a notable change in public opinion when it comes to the nation’s support of gay marriage: more people support gay marriage (49%) than oppose it (44%). In particular, 70% of “millennials” (people age 18-32) support gay marriage. Today, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stepped forward in support of gay marriage in hopes of improving child well-being nationwide. The AAP, a group that represents 60,000 pediatricians who care for families all over the US, did so not just for politics, but for children. There are mounting piles of research that the estimated 2 million children being raised by gay or lesbian parents are doing beautifully. In fact, the AAP says, Read full post »