Pediatrician Jay Gordon Talks Babies, Breast Feeding, and Vaccines

He may be outspoken, but parents would have it no other way

Jay Gordon is at a loss. Here he is, one of L.A.’s most sought-after pediatricians, and every time he tries to hold a six-month-old baby in his arms, she bursts into a wail. “Tell Lulu to shape up,” Gordon jokes.

It’s a sweltering summer morning, and Gordon, better known as Dr. Jay, is dressed in his usual office attire: jeans, dress shirt, tie, casual black shoes. His dog, an old black Lab named Babe, is sprawled out on the floor near him. Lulu is one of Gordon’s patients. She has creamy pink skin and a layer of peach fuzz covering her head. Her mother has brought her to this production studio in Culver City to help Gordon do some publicity shots for a gaggle of media projects he’s involved in.

Half a dozen other babies and their parents have been rounded up, too. The commotion swirling around him, Gordon sits on the floor, posing with three babies while the photographer calls out directions. Every so often a makeup artist blots his forehead, dusts him with powder.

“Put your hands on your knees,” the photographer says.

“My knees?”

“Yeah. Let’s see what they do, motioning to the babies.”

“Well,” says Gordon, smiling, “I know what they’re going to do.”

Gordon drops his arms. The babies tumble gently onto the ground, like ripe plums falling off a tree.

“Is there a doctor on the set?” someone says.

The adults laugh, as if sharing a privileged moment. They’re all connected in some fashion to Gordon. The young assistant who was a “Dr. Jay baby.” The photographer in Birkenstocks whose four boys are patients. The men producing a DVD featuring Gordon, both of them fathers of former patients. One of them tells me their intent is to “memorialize Jay’s lifework.”

Gordon doesn’t mind a bit. On the contrary; the Santa Monica pediatrician—whose booming practice also includes a number of far more famous parents, like Jeff Bridges, Noah Wyle, and Cindy Crawford—has a knack for enlisting his devoted and influential clients to boost his career. Today’s feel-good photo session is typical.

“Do we just want a shot of Jay by himself?” someone suggests.

“Big smile.”

“Big laugh, Jay.”

Prominent pediatricians like Gordon occupy a peculiar social niche in L.A. They’re not exactly powerful themselves, but they deal with the powerful every day. Which in turn enhances their own celebrity in a town obsessed with it. Gordon, who runs his practice out of an art deco building on the corner of 9th and Montana, has used his reputation as Hollywood’s favorite baby doctor to promote his views on a larger stage. He’s published several books on parenting, with titles like Hug Your Baby. For five years he was doc-in-residence on The Home Show, a morning gabfest on ABC. He’s been a medical consultant for shows on CBS. He’s a regular on AOL’s “Ask the Pediatrician” weekly chat. Not long ago the trim, gray-haired pediatrician appeared on Good Morning America sitting next to Crawford.

Gordon is a staunch advocate of attachment parenting, a philosophy built around breast-feeding on demand, parents sleeping with their children, and what’s known as “baby wearing”—carrying your infant in a sling to promote closeness. In its best form, attachment parenting produces secure babies and loving parents. In its worst, it inverts motherhood into a slavish duty where baby-sitters are viewed as suspect, cribs are considered cruel, and the child’s needs always trump the mother’s.

As any veteran parent knows, schools of thought about how to raise children are in constant flux. One minute experts are saying let your baby cry herself to sleep, the next they’re screaming that doing so will damage her for life. One decade parents are wild about the freewheeling Dr. Spock, the next about the prescriptive Dr. Sears. Most mainstream pediatricians don’t endorse attachment parenting because it’s too impractical for everyday, working parents, but Gordon’s clients aren’t everyday, working parents; they’re a small but intensely vocal group from neighborhoods like Santa Monica and Malibu and the Palisades.

Gordon espouses most attachment parenting tenets, but the 56-year-old pediatrician is especially adamant about breastfeeding. “We know that kids who don’t breast-feed get sick more often,” he told me one night on the phone. “If I know that, I’d better be the guy who advocates pretty strongly for continued breast-feeding.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other major medical organizations don’t quibble with him on that. “Breast is best,” as the saying goes. But Gordon’s views on breastfeeding aren’t exactly the norm. He thinks formula is dreck. He hates dairy not only because kids can develop an allergy to it but also because, as he contends, it’s bad for you. Though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast-feeding for at least a year, Gordon believes that women should do it for two years, if not longer. (He has one patient, an eight-year-old boy, who still breast-feeds. “This is just a regular old family where there’ve been a lot of children,” Gordon said.)

Breast-feeding isn’t easy. Just ask any woman who’s done it, and you’re likely to hear about cracked nipples, the anxiety over not producing enough milk, and the inconvenience of pumping twice a day at work. “Not every mother is suited to breast-feed until the kid is two years old, and making people feel guilty about a little bit of formula is a real disservice to them,” said Dr. Barbara Howard, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and codirector of the Center for the Promotion of Child Development. Gordon feels that if a woman’s having trouble, she just needs encouragement. “There are very few breast-feeding problems that can’t be solved,” he said.

One morning in his office I listened as a music producer in her thirties explained that she wanted to wean her year-old daughter. The mom, who lives in Pacific Palisades, complained about how tired she was, how her breasts were lumpy and sore, how she’d been trying to drop one or two feedings for weeks, but Gordon kept straying from the topic, chatting about everything from the taste of thawed breast milk to his iPod. She kept asking him for guidance on the weaning issue. “I hear you, I’m listening closely, though my heart’s not in it,” Gordon said. “I don’t know if your heart’s in it either.”

Gordon feels just as strongly about another aspect of attachment parenting, the so-called family bed. He thinks that American babies belong in bed with their parents, just like babies in many other countries. He contends they sleep better, they bond better, they nurse better that way. To do anything else is mean. “I can’t imagine bringing a baby home from the hospital and putting it in another room,” he told me the first time we talked. While many of Gordon’s patients seem to agree, Howard, the pediatrician affiliated with Johns Hopkins, noted, “There’s no data saying the attachment relationship is better or worse in situations where parents sleep with their children.”

On the other hand, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that it’s hard on a marriage. Many parents complain that once they let their kids in the bed, they can’t get them out. And that it’s bad for their sex life. “Let’s say you’ve got the baby in the bed for a year, two years,” said Howard. “How many husbands are going to hang in there?”

Gordon sees a lot of divorces among his clients, because some parents go off the deep end about attachment parenting. “I talk to people who say, ‘We’ve never left him, and the kid’s two years old,’” Gordon told me. “I don’t recommend spending a week away from your one-year-old. It’s too long. But I do think that at nine or ten months of age you can go to dinner and a movie.”

With so many conflicting opinions, it’s no wonder well-intentioned parents become neurotic about finding the best way to raise their children. As Howard said, “There is no one good way to parent. The biggest problem anyone runs into is being too dogmatic. Let’s say attachment parenting works great with their first kid. They get a second kid. That same parenting style may not work very well. You need to be flexible. We don’t want people to parent in a style that leads them to feeling guilty. The other thing we know from the data is that parents do better if they feel comfortable with the role. It’s not whether mothers work or not that has the impact. It’s whether they’re satisfied with what they’re doing.”

Gordon didn’t popularize attachment parenting. One of the philosophy’s early local proponents was pediatrician Paul Fleiss (father of the former Hollywood madam, Heidi). He was Gordon’s mentor. They met during Gordon’s residency at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles. Fleiss was the baby doctor of choice for celebrities and one of the few pediatricians promoting breast-feeding and holistic health care. Gordon worked in his Los Feliz office for five years before setting up shop in 1984. The two pediatricians used to chat during their early morning runs through Griffith Park. “Paul Fleiss advocated for his patients,” Gordon said. “He taught me about natural parenting. He should be what Bill Sears is, okay?”

Sears, a best-selling author and frequent media guest who practices in San Clemente, is the one most credited with starting the movement. Gordon, who disdains big business, doesn’t especially like Sears, with his multimillion-dollar empire of baby products, music, and books and his ties with major advertisers. The first time I interviewed Gordon at his office, a cozy place with sunny yellow walls and soft leather furniture and photos of beautiful children in the waiting room, he burst out, “Bill Sears is called America’s pediatrician. Well, Bill Sears has worked with the formula manufacturers for years. He worked for Martek!”

“That’s wrong on both counts,” said Sears, who is on Martek’s advisory board. “I don’t accept money from formula manufacturers, and Martek doesn’t make formula. They make the omega-3 fat that companies put in their formula. It’s a good thing they do, or we’d be back to the age of junk. Jay knows better than that. He knows the whole story.”

Sears didn’t sound angry, but he did seem baffled by Gordon’s remarks. “Pediatricians don’t say that about other pediatricians,” he said. “I respect Jay. I think he probably had a weak moment or something.”

Actually, Gordon has a habit of scolding colleagues. He often blasts physicians, nurses, and institutions he thinks are mistreating children and their parents. “There are a fair number of people with whom I don’t get along,” Gordon said to me. “I have a pretty fierce attitude about the way I regard vaccinations, medical care in general. And there are people who don’t agree with me.”

He used to be even worse—“stubborn and hotheaded,” as he put it. “I’d get a call from somebody whose doctor said the baby needed to stay in the hospital an extra five days, and I would be intemperate in what I said about the doctor. Which is absurd. Which is unprofessional. I would say I’ve progressed over the past ten years. I still don’t always think hard enough.”

Along with attachment parenting, Gordon is big on natural medicine. He is reluctant to use antibiotics, tells parents to hold off before giving their febrile children Tylenol, and prescribes herbal remedies such as elderberry extract.

Still, it’s his ideas about vaccination that incite the most debate. Kids’ vaccines have come under scrutiny in recent years because of a spike in autism and other learning disabilities. Some parents blame the trace amount of mercury once used in some vaccines, though a highly regarded study by the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., last year disproved any such link.

Gordon believes that kids get too many shots, too early He admits that “99 percent” of pediatricians and experts disagree with him. No matter. “We give a couple of dozen shots in the first weeks of life. The immune system is immature and responds more efficiently at later ages. We know that.”

After Gordon spelled out his views in a column in Fit Pregnancy, the magazine took the extraordinary step of apologizing in a subsequent editor’s note, saying they had received many letters from family doctors and pediatricians, including one from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “objecting to Dr. Gordon’s views and fearing that our readers might get the message that they should formulate an immunization schedule without consulting their physician or—even worse—decide not to vaccinate at all, posing grave dangers to their children and others.”

In fact, some parents who see Gordon don’t vaccinate their children, a decision he feels they’re smart enough to make themselves.

Experts find it infuriating that pediatricians like Gordon present such a critical public health issue as a matter of personal choice. “We have national committees who decide these things, and each of these committees have 20 or so members of the best, most knowledgeable people in the country, and they rotate every five years,” said Dr. Joel Ward, director of vaccine research at Harbor/UCLA Medical Center. Ward was so angry on the phone when we first talked that he asked to reschedule our interview.

“We have prevented millions of cases of infectious diseases,” he said. “This is the combined wisdom of that knowledge, and you’re going to compare that to some private practitioner who has an opinion? Who is not an expert in immunization? That makes no sense. There are reasons for every recommendation. And it’s to provide individual health and to optimize our public health.”

Gordon relishes his role as a contrarian, but even he doesn’t slough off criticism. The first time I met him, he mimicked his critics: “‘He doesn’t give vaccines. He never uses antibiotics,’” he said, leaning forward in his chair, throwing up his hands. “Of course I do!”

“I think he’s very good at preaching to the converted—people like me who really come in wanting what he has to offer,” said Mary Beth Kirshner, a 45-year-old radio producer who has worked for Nightline and NPR. Gordon treats her son, and she especially likes the way he incorporates natural medicine. “When you’re making choices against the mainstream, you feel better when you’re in the hands of a pediatrician you completely trust.”

Kirshner is so passionate about Gordon, she wants to give him a bigger stage. She recently produced a pilot for NPR revolving around the doctor, a folksy call-in show titled Other Answers, which features actor Noah Wyle and his wife, Tracy, whose toddler sees the pediatrician. Kirshner believes Gordon could serve the need for what she calls “an inspired national pediatrician.”

Unlike most pediatricians, Gordon doesn’t take insurance. “Managed care has greatly intruded on good care,” he said, but the bottom line is that he just doesn’t want HMOs telling him what he can, and cannot, do. The policy prevents a lot of people from seeing him, including those who’d benefit most from his care and experience: single moms and middle-class working mothers.

It also creates an exclusive, almost clubby atmosphere. Parents enjoy an unusually close relationship with the physician. No one calls him “Dr. Gordon.” It’s always “Jay” or “Dr. Jay.” He eats dinner at their houses. He knows their nannies. He’s godfather to the Wyles’ son. About a hundred clients have his private number.

He’s beloved for several reasons, among them his sparing use of antibiotics and his laidback manner. But while his philosophy has helped make him popular, one of the things parents seem to like most about him is his willingness to heed their wishes, almost as if they knew what was best. In one respect that’s not surprising. The sorts of parents he deals with—such as Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman—are people accustomed to being in control. “I don’t see a lot of people who say, ‘Yes, sir, what should we do, Doctor, sir?’” Gordon explained. “When I say something, I had better know what I’m talking about. Because if I don’t, someone will hand me my head.”

For some, his hands-off style has limited appeal. “There are jokes around town: ‘Jay’s a great doctor until your kid’s actually sick,’” one of his clients told me. Another mom who sees him said, “A lot of families love Jay in the beginning, but as their children get older, they’re not as enthused.”

If so, Gordon doesn’t seem to notice. “I have very few people I lose,” he said. “The ones who don’t come to my practice are the ones who want conventional answers. The ones who want to be told what to do. I tell people what I believe. I tell but make it damn clear I don’t have the only answer.”

Others find his approach to nutrition excessive. Gordon believes nutrition is the biggest issue in pediatrics. “French fries are the number one vegetable eaten by two-year-old children in America,” he is fond of declaring in visits with parents. Gordon became a vegetarian in medical school because, as he put it, “it was the healthiest thing to do.” He’s constantly badgering his young patients to eat less dairy, cut out the sugar and salt, and load up on fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, and pasta. Here he was delivering one such lesson on a Thursday morning: “Okay, today, Audrey, we’re going to talk about eating more carrots and broccoli,” he announced to a feisty four-year-old. “Not again!” she groaned. When moms don’t want to breastfeed anymore, Gordon steers them to alternatives like hazelnut milk and oat milk.

Gordon’s views on nutrition stem from his Midwestern roots in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He often jokes that he didn’t see a vegetable until he was 20. His father, who owned a couple of shoe stores, had a history of cardiovascular disease and died at 59 after undergoing elective surgery. “He was assassinated by a team of two or three doctors,” Gordon said icily.

Gordon hated medical school. He almost flunked out. But it did teach him one salient thing as he sat around the commons eating cheeseburgers and fried chicken: Americans eat awful food. After graduating from the Medical College of Wisconsin in 1975, Gordon spent part of his residency at Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York studying infant nutrition. He’s the first male physician with a certificate from the International Board of Lactation, and he’s active in the militant La Leche League, which advocates nothing but breast milk for babies.

That determination to flout convention and do things his own way is exactly what clients, many of them equally rebellious, want from him. Actress Téa Leoni described Gordon as an “almost Norman Rockwell doctor.” She and actor David Duchovny have two children. When their daughter was nine months old, she became critically ill. Gordon was on call. “I’ll never forget it,” Leoni told me. “I didn’t know Jay very well, but he asked me on the phone that night if my daughter had smiled that day. It was a horrible revelation to me.”

Gordon told them to bring her in to his office. When he listened to the baby’s lungs, he heard pneumonia on the left side. She was in the hospital for ten days, but the day the baby was scheduled to leave she started turning gray. Terrified, Leoni phoned Gordon. “I said, ‘What’s happening?’” she recalled. “Jay said, ‘Can you get her on the boob?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Let’s get her out of there. Take her to the beach, wrap her in a blanket, and feed her as long as you can.’” Six hours later the baby was pink and happy.

Gordon sometimes attends deliveries as well. On a hunch Leoni asked him to be at the birth of her second child. “I thought, I’d love to have him there, to be the first doctor to touch our child. And it was brilliant and perfect until the moment my son came out.”

The baby had the cord wrapped around his neck and was blue and limp. Gordon asked if he could hold him. “Then he very calmly picked him up and rubbed this child like they rubbed that puppy in 101 Dalmations, and all of a sudden he sprouted to life.” Leoni turned to Gordon. “Oh, my God! That’s two,” she said.

Leoni regards Gordon like an uncle. “He’s part of our lives, and will forever be.”