How To Become A Pediatric Dietitian : With Steps
Children and adolescents may have different nutritional needs from adults, and pediatric dietitians specialize in providing dietary advice for this population. For those who enjoy working with infants, kids and teenagers to support their healthcare needs, becoming a pediatric dietitian can be a rewarding career. However, before pursuing a career in this role, it is important to understand what these dietitians do and what it takes to become one. In this article, we discuss what a pediatric dietitian is, what they do, what skills they use and the steps for how to become a pediatric dietitian.
What is a pediatric dietitian?
A pediatric dietitian is a nutrition expert who focuses on the dietary needs of children and adolescents. They work in a variety of settings, including outpatient clinics, pediatric hospitals, schools and private practices. Their work is important for educating children and families on good nutritional practices and counseling the families of kids with specific dietary needs such as those with food allergies, sensitivities or medical conditions.
Related: Nutritionist vs. Dietitian: Definitions and Differences
What does a pediatric dietitian do?
Pediatric dietitians perform a variety of functions related to working with kids and families to support their nutrition. Some specific duties that pediatric dietitians may perform include:
- Creating personalized meal plans for children
- Working with children who have selective eating habits
- Helping children transition from using a feeding tube to mouth feeding
- Assisting children with various appetite problems
- Developing weight management programs
- Providing nutritional assistance for children with complex illnesses or conditions
For example, a pediatric dietitian might consult with the family of a child with diabetes to help them learn how to manage the condition with good eating habits. They can work with the family to track the child's illness and design specialized meal plans that meet the child's nutritional needs. Another dietitian may specialize in working with children who have sensory challenges that make eating difficult. They might work with children to help desensitize them to certain foods, or plan menus that account for each child's food preferences while still promoting a balanced diet.
Pediatric dietitian skills
Pediatric dietitians use both hard and soft skills to excel in their careers. Here are some skills that these specialists might use:
Pediatric dietitians rely on good verbal communication skills. When working with clients, they may use these skills to explain nutritional information to both parents and children. They might explain treatment procedures to ensure that caregivers understand how to use the plan to meet the child's dietary needs. Some dietitians may present at conferences or conduct workshops to teach others in their field or related fields about pediatric nutrition.
Good listening skills are important for dietitians who work with clients. Listening helps practitioners understand their client's needs and preferences. It may also help them respond effectively to questions. For dietitians who work in hospitals along with a healthcare team, listening skills are important for understanding their role in supporting the team's objectives.
Related: Building Communication Skills: 9 Types of Listening
In addition to listening, dietitians may use empathy to understand and connect with their clients. Empathy allows dietitians to understand the perspectives of their clients and deliver compassionate care. Having empathy may improve a practitioner's ability to communicate with their clients, and it may strengthen their relationships with clients.
Critical thinking is the ability to collect, assess and organize information to identify problems and develop solutions. Dietitians use critical thinking skills to understand dietary problems in children and develop treatment plans to address those challenges. They evaluate the information that clients and their healthcare providers present to determine the best course of action for meeting their clients' needs based on industry best practices.
Related: 10 Essential Critical Thinking Skills (and How To Improve Them)
A dietitian may need to make firm decisions when defining nutrition plans for their clients. Their clients might look to them for leadership and guidance on dietary advice. Dietitians depend on their decisiveness to define nutritional plans that specify what foods the client can eat, what foods to eliminate and how to prepare foods.
Dietitians may take on a counseling role in their position. Their job is to work with clients to determine their needs and devise plans to fulfill those needs. In addition to helping clients develop meal plans, dietitians may also work with them to support their emotional needs. They may take a coaching or motivational perspective to help clients adhere to their nutrition plans. This might include helping clients replace old eating habits with healthier alternatives while providing emotional support through the transition.
Finally, dietitians might use their research skills to conduct their own research or to understand how to use new studies in their practice. Nutrition research is always changing, so it's important for dietitians to continue their education by studying the latest publications. Understanding how researchers study nutrition and how to apply research findings in practice may help dietitians provide the best quality of service to their clients.
How to become a pediatric dietitian
Here are the steps to becoming a pediatric dietitian:
1. Earn a bachelor's degree
The first step to becoming a dietitian is to earn a bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree typically takes four years to complete. Choosing a program in nutrition, biology or dietetics may equip aspiring dietitians with the skills they need to succeed in their field. Students may prefer to enroll in a program with accreditation through the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics to ensure they receive the best standard of education in their industry.
The typical coursework in a nutrition bachelor's degree includes:
- Human anatomy and physiology
- Nutrition counseling
- Dietary systems management
- Vitamins, minerals and food science
- Community health
- Exercise theory
- Nutrition life cycle
2. Gain specialized knowledge
Pediatrics represents a specialized field within nutrition. Therefore, students looking to become pediatric dietitians may need to complete additional coursework along with their bachelor's degree. Students may earn these credits through additional certification, practical experience within the specialty or they may enroll in a degree program designed specifically for pediatric dietitians.
Related: Required Education for a Dietitian: What You Need To Know
3. Complete an internship
Dietitians must acquire practical experience before they are eligible for licensure or certification. Completing an internship may help students earn experience in the field while working alongside industry professionals. Some bachelor's degree programs may require students to complete an internship before graduating, but programs may vary in their standards for internship length and available placements. For students who wish to become pediatric dietitians, completing an internship at a hospital, children's hospital, pediatrician's office or community health center may help them learn practical clinical skills while earning hours toward their professional certification.
4. Gain certification or licensure
The requirements for certification or licensure vary by state. However, as many positions are contingent on certification, it may be important to become a board certified specialist in pediatric nutrition. To earn board certification, dietitians must first become registered through the Commission on Dietetic Registration. They must maintain their registration for at least two years and complete 2,000 practice hours within the pediatric specialty. After meeting these requirements, the dietitian can apply for board certification. This certification validates the dietitian's commitment to meeting the highest standards of professionalism in their industry.
Although not all states require dietitians to earn licensure, those that do typically require these professionals to pass an exam, have their bachelor's degree and complete a set amount of hours of supervised clinical practice.
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