Your baby has a nighttime medical emergency—who to call?

With urgent care centers springing up on every corner and 24-hour emergency rooms available to most families within driving distance, how does a worried parent know where to take their sick child during a late-night emergency?

After 30 years of night shifts in the emergency room and night calls, I can guarantee you that most pediatricians would rather talk with a worried parent at 3 a.m. than have them make an expensive, scary, and possibly unnecessary trip to the emergency room.

I won’t go so far as to say we enjoy being woken up in the wee hours of the morning, but we have been trained to shift into “doctor mode” from a deep sleep. Many people don’t understand how to take advantage of this valuable service, which all medical practices offer.

I must clarify for the sake of my colleagues, however, that late-night calls should be reserved for truly urgent situations, a problem that would be just a notch below calling 911. Questions about minor concerns should wait until the office re-opens in the morning.

Still, a call to your own pediatrician can save you time, money, and worry. Most doctors have electronic medical records. This means that even when the office is closed, they can review your child’s chart, send prescriptions directly to a pharmacy, and make arrangements for an office visit the next day. If your child needs to be seen urgently, your doctor can recommend the best place to go (urgent care or ER) and can even call ahead to let them know you are coming, which can expedite your child’s care.

While it may seem convenient to take your child to an urgent care center in the evening after work instead of calling your pediatrician after-hours, there can be several drawbacks. More often than not, the medical staff is not specifically trained to take care of infants and young children. Children are not small adults, and symptoms that might be considered minor in an adult could be of significant concern in a baby. Also, your doctor’s office may not receive information from the urgent care center about your visit, which leads to gaps in the medical record. Some medical problems take several visits to diagnose and treat. Returning to the same doctor helps the process proceed in a logical way.

Emergency rooms are frequently in crisis mode due to large numbers of patients waiting to be seen. The truth is that many of the people waiting for care do not need to be there. This makes it difficult for the staff to attend to patients who have truly life-threatening conditions. Taking an infant or young child to an emergency room for an ear ache or mild cold symptoms just adds to the problem of overcrowded emergency services. Your child may also end up taking home new germs, not to mention nightmares from the experience. Again, your doctor can help you decide if your child needs to be seen in the emergency room.

So the bottom line on after-hours medical concerns: call 911 if you have a life-threatening situation. For all other problems, call your doctor first. We’re here for you.


  1. I agree! Pediatricians are used to taking calls after hours, and we’d like to help you avoid unnecessary urgent care or ER visits. For most offices, the regular office number will route you to the “doctor or nurse on call” who will then call you back. Just remember to keep the phone close by for when they call!


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