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The waiting room at Pediatric Alternatives in Mill Valley, a town in the affluent hippie enclave of Marin County, California, is a far cry from the drab doctors’ offices I remember from childhood. Instead of old copies of Highlights magazine and a few sticky Legos, there’s a veritable Montessori classroom’s worth of appealing toys: wholesome-looking wooden blocks, stacks of picture books, and even a ride-on Radio Flyer fire engine. For parents, there are bookshelves stocked with Moosewood cookbooks and herbal remedies and tomes about how French people get their children to eat. Black-and-white portraits of grinning kids line the walls. Even the patients and their parents look great: trim moms in yoga pants, a giggling, pigtailed preschooler playing with a sticker, an elementary-school girl holding an American Girl book. No one seems to have so much as a runny nose.

This scene isn’t the only impressive thing about Pediatric Alternatives. The practice’s five physicians have impeccable credentials, having trained and completed residencies at some of the nation’s top medical schools and institutions. Several are fellows of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Given all this, it might surprise you to learn that one of Pediatric Alternatives’ policies is extremely unorthodox: It suggests that families delay certain childhood immunizations-in some cases for years past the age recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-and forego others entirely. A little less than 20 percent of the families the practice treats choose not to vaccinate at all. The rest use a modified vaccine schedule.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages alternative vaccine schedules, it doesn’t forbid them for its members. And the insurers that contract with Pediatric Alternatives-which include Blue Cross, Blue Shield, Aetna, and Cigna-haven’t raised any protest. As Aetna puts it, “We don’t dictate care.” The California Department of Health simply requests that “parents ensure their children are immunized according to the schedule recommended by their physician.” The state of California, meanwhile, makes it relatively easy to opt out of vaccines: Parents are not required to follow the federally recommended schedule, and those who wish to skip shots entirely need only obtain the signature of their child’s pediatrician. (Rules vary in other states. See our map.)

If these top-shelf pediatricians and the regulatory bodies that oversee them are willing to allow customized immunization plans for each patient, then is there a possibility they are onto something? Could it be that much of what we’ve heard about the importance of timely vaccines is wrong?