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Pediatrics

Why Your Child Needs a Physical Every Year.

An annual physical exam isn't just for school or sports — it's important for your child's health.


Pediatrician and father, mother, school-aged boy and baby girl sit in pediatrician's office

As the school year comes to a close, the last thing kids and parents want to think about is next year. But summer is prime season for physicals. So while you’re booking your family trip and filling your kids’ calendars with summer camps, take a minute to make an appointment for the all-important annual health check.

“There’s a big push in the summer months to get physicals, mainly because a lot of Des Moines-area schools and sports teams are on that cycle,” says Allison Whitney, MD, pediatrician at The Iowa Clinic’s Ankeny campus. “Every summer, August gets crazy in almost every pediatrics office. Sometimes, it can be hard to get in. I encourage parents to schedule it sooner than later."

“There’s nothing magical about waiting until summer though,” she adds. “The best time to schedule a physical is when you think of it and get it on your calendar, no matter the time of year.”

Dr. Allison Whitney, Pediatrician at The Iowa Clinic Ankeny Campus

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But my child’s healthy. They don’t need a physical.

Dr. Whitney hears those words a lot from parents. But even if your kid is the picture of good health, there are a number of reasons why they still need an annual physical exam:

1. Physicals are a check on your child’s growth and development.

Kids. They grow up so fast. So fast that it’s easy to forget all the changes over the previous 12 months.

“Getting an annual physical is important because it gives you a chance to sit down with your physician to talk about growth, nutrition, sleep habits and developmental changes,” Dr. Whitney says. “Even if things are going great, a conversation can bring things to mind that you wouldn’t have thought about otherwise or might have overlooked.”

“Speaking as a parent who’s also a pediatrician, it’s still important to have that objective third party look over your child to say, ‘Yes, they actually are doing okay’ rather than try and be the parent and medical provider for your own child,” she adds.

2. The annual routine helps establish healthy relationships and habits.

A child who only goes to the doctor when they’re sick or when they have to get a shot is not going to have positive feelings about health care visits. And those fears and feelings can follow them through adulthood.

“Bringing them in for a physical teaches them to not be afraid. It makes it normal,” Dr. Whitney says. “It teaches kids to have a relationship and establish rapport with their physician and understand it’s someone they can trust. Building those habits early on serves them well down the road and demonstrates the importance of being aware of your health.”

3. Physicals are often required for kids.

Most daycare providers and schools in central Iowa and beyond require an official physical form from each child’s provider. The Iowa Department of Human Services requires each center to have a copy of a child’s physical examination on file in case a health issue occurs during the day or a child needs medical treatment.

“In a daycare setting, they want to know your child’s health history. Do they have special needs? Known allergies? Conditions that require extra care or monitoring? Do they need to take any medications? Things like that,” Dr. Whitney says.

While the Iowa Department of Education doesn’t have the same requirements for school-age children, individual school districts do. At the very least, kids are required by law to have certain vaccinations in order to attend school — vaccinations that are easily worked into a routine physical.

“There are sports teams, clubs and other activities that want an annual physical on file in order for your child to participate,” Dr. Whitney says. “Basically, they are looking for confirmation that your child is medically-cleared to be under their watch.”

If it’s not just shots, what else happens at a child’s physical?

Think back to that first year of your kid’s life when it felt like you were going to the doctor all the time. Sure there were some booster shots, but most visits were routine check-ups to make sure your baby was growing and developing. You also probably peppered your pediatrician with questions about caring for your little one!

It’s the same setup for routine physicals when they get a bit older — with far fewer shots. Because even between vaccinations to prevent disease, it’s still important to monitor your kid’s growth and development to keep them healthy.

In a standard physical, your pediatrician will:

  • Check vital signs — temperature, pulse, respiratory rate and blood pressure.
  • Measure height and weight.
  • Look in the ears, eyes and mouth.
  • Listen to the heart and lungs.
  • Feel the abdomen.
  • Check out the back for scoliosis.
  • Watch your child walk.
  • Look for signs of development and puberty on the body.

“We look kids over from head to toe. We do a lot of different things to look for problems or concerns that we might be able to help with before they become a major issue,” Dr. Whitney says.

Your pediatrician will also ask a lot of questions:

  • How’s their appetite?
  • Do they follow a restrictive diet for any reason?
  • What grade are they in school — any concerns?
  • How do they sleep?
  • How do they get along with others?
  • Do you have any concerns about your child on a day-to-day basis?

“That’s part of our job, too. Health is pervasive into a lot of different areas, so we cover a wide range of topics,” Dr. Whitney says. “It’s hard to sit down and think about every little thing that worried you in the past 365 days. It’s probably a lot! So we prod into a bunch of different areas that may not seem concerning in the moment but come back when someone else brings it up.”

You convinced me. How can I sign up for a physical near me?

It’s simple. Schedule it online with your child’s doctor right now.

“Even if you don’t have a primary care provider at The Iowa Clinic, you can call and schedule with us ,” Dr. Whitney says. “But we’ll still ask you to establish care. That way, if you need us down the road, we know your child’s backstory and can be of better service.”

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