Mama Doc Medicine: Q&A with Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D.

Published on: March 04, 2014

Wendy Sue Swanson, MDWendy Sue Swanson’s wisdom is a mix of medicine and motherhood. In 2009, the Seattle Children’s Hospital pediatrician launched the Seattle Mama Doc blog to better connect with the world outside her exam room.

“I love helping families in the clinic, and I wanted to continue contributing to those conversations in the community,” Swanson says. Her blog has attracted more than 1.5 million visitors to date.

On Seattle Mama Doc, Swanson shares professional knowledge about everything from vaccines to car seats, along with personal insights based on parenting two sons. These posts are the basis for her first book, Mama Doc Medicine, fresh off the presses this week.

Swanson, who partnered with the American Academy of Pediatrics to publish Mama Doc Medicine, spoke with ParentMap about helping parents make informed decisions, how her family inspires her work and why her book deserves a spot on the shelf.

Your blog is incredibly popular. Why publish a book version?

I was approached by a lot of publishers. I hesitated because I really believe in and value Internet content. Some older blog posts from years ago still bubble up and reach people, but others fall to the side — the book brings them to the surface again. [Then] I became a spokesperson for the [American Academy of Pediatrics] a couple years back and really got to know the organization. Having them as a partner for the book was a great opportunity.

The blog was partly inspired by the controversy surrounding childhood immunizations, which also has a section in the book. Why is this topic so important to you?

The vaccine hesitancy exploded around 2008. Jenny McCarthy [a celebrity opponent of vaccines] was on Oprah [discussing the issue], then everything accelerated. I couldn’t sit on my hands any longer. We, as a population and as parents, are incredibly passionate about making the right decisions, but people were beginning to confuse personal opinion with expertise. Vaccines carry some risk, but it’s exceedingly small for children. We need to connect the community with the science and facts so we continue protecting ourselves and those who are vulnerable.

You write about your personal reaction to the immunization frenzy and the resulting fearful pop-culture stories. How did they influence your blogging?

I think we still make the mistake in medicine of sometimes saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong,” and thinking that’s the end of the conversation. It was imperative for me to talk openly about it on the blog. When my son had his measles shot, I bit my lip. It freaked me out a little bit, but not for any good reason. The story was in me, and it was scary. Fortunately, I have the education and understanding to clearly know to do the shot. I wanted to use the Internet to say I’m a normal person and a mom, too. I respect the validity of how stories sometimes make us feel, but I also want to help people understand the science and make sure families get good information.

What are the blog topics that always seem to interest readers?

Why toddlers wake up at night always gets a lot of views! I tend to write during the second news hour, as I call it. As a spokesperson and someone working with the media, I sometimes get news ahead of time. I’d get more [blog] traffic covering breaking news, but I like to wait until the second beat. I think I do better writing after watching where the conversation goes.

Mama Doc MedicineYou write about getting the “real story” to parents, not just what they’re “supposed” to be told. What do you mean?

That’s a hard one. I thought a lot about putting that in. When doctors say something patients don’t agree with, sometimes the feeling is that there is an algorithm of the doctor just saying what they were supposed to say: “They had to tell me to get vaccines because it’s on the normal schedule.” [Doctors] need to [talk] more about why they need to do it.

There is a lot of parenting advice out there. Where is the line between helpful information and overload?

There certainly isn’t too little advice out there! I hope to return the conversation to having a sense of purpose and joy. I have a lot of fun with my kids. I think we as parents suffer from feeling like we have to be perfect. I think there are really five main things we need to do: Get our kids vaccinated, use a car seat, get our family outside and moving, feed kids fresh fruits and vegetables and make sure they get quality sleep. The rest is a gray zone. Nail those five things, though, and you’re doing a phenomenal job overall.

In the chapter titled “Nothing I Learned in Medical School,” you talk about learning a lot from the practice of parenting itself. Why is it important to value the family experience?

Parenting and the medical aspects go together. Some people are critical that pediatricians aren’t parenting experts, but we need to be in some ways. [Doctors] need to also think about a child’s social environment. We should value that the parenting experience affects a child’s health. I’m a profoundly different person after having my boys — I can’t underestimate that. It’s fueled my passion to do innovative work in the health space. I dedicated the book to my sons. They and my patients remind me every single day of what’s worth fighting for.

What’s your favorite family time?

I am madly in love with my children! They take up so much of my heart. I love to eat with them, it’s probably one of my favorite things to do. My husband is also a physician, and our work schedules can be insane. We work ferociously hard to treasure and capture dinnertime together.

What is one of the most important pieces of advice you want to share with readers?

I’d say to enjoy the incredible journey of being a parent. Use the opportunity to reflect and be mindful. I’m like everybody else in the world: I constantly slap myself on the forehead as a reminder to give myself a freaking break from trying to be perfect. I want my writing to reinforce that. Disengaging from reading advice can be good sometimes, too! You can also do a beautiful job on your own.

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