In March, the world lost an early childhood champion who helped the public appreciate the power of investing well and often in the lives of very young children.
“Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, America’s most celebrated baby doctor since Benjamin Spock and the pediatrician who revolutionized our understanding of how children develop psychologically, died on Tuesday at his home in Barnstable, Mass., on Cape Cod. He was 99,” the New York Times reported, adding:
“Before Dr. Brazelton began practicing medicine in the early 1950s, the conventional wisdom about babies and child rearing was unsparingly authoritarian.”
Brazelton “rejected such beliefs and practices as being senseless, if not barbaric.
“ ‘He put the baby at the center of the universe,’ Dr. Barry Lester, a pediatrician and director of the Center for the Study of Children at Risk at Brown University, said…”
Born in Waco, Texas, and a graduate of Princeton University and Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Brazelton has said that he was not close to his father.
“ ‘I’m sure he loved me,’ Dr. Brazelton later reflected, ‘but I never really knew him.’ His father’s remoteness, he added, ‘fueled my ambitions’ to better understand early father-child bonding,” the Boston Globe reported.
“It was during a residency at Children’s Hospital,” the Globe says, “that Dr. Brazelton cultivated a lifelong interest in what he called the ‘total child.’ ”
“In 1951, Dr. Brazelton opened a pediatric practice in Cambridge while beginning a teaching position at Harvard Medical School.”
Brazelton’s compassion was effusive. In the book “Touchpoints: Birth to Three,” which Brazelton cowrote with his colleague Joshua D. Sparrow, Brazelton writes:
“Learning to parent is made up of learning from mistakes — as well as from successes: Parenting is a process of trial and error.”
Brazelton adds: “When I began to practice, I found I was sometimes bored by the routines of shots, weight and height checks, and physical exams. For me the excitement lay in the developmental issues that the children presented and that the parents raised with deep concerns at each visit.”
Brazelton was an observer who watched children carefully so that he could see what their parents saw, anticipate developmental challenges and progress, and continue build with parents a mutual vision of how to help these young children thrive.
Last month, Brazelton’s colleagues honored him by holding the “Dr. T. Berry Brazelton Symposium and Celebration.” A slideshow from the event is posted here. And a tribute video about Brazelton is posted here.
Writing about the event in a letter, Joshua Sparrow — a Harvard Medical School professor as well as the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and the president of the Brazelton Touchpoints Foundation — reflected on the future, writing:
“As he listened, Dr. Brazelton learned about the changing challenges for families, and helped create an array of research tools, clinical interventions, professional training programs, and policy changes to address them. As he said to me 8 days before he died, ‘Parents aren’t worried about the same things now as when I was in practice.’ As we continue to listen to children and families, we will learn about the new challenges they face. Together with them we will deploy research, practice, professional development and policy to forge our path forward.”
Dr. Brazelton will be missed, but his inspiration will live on in the careers of the people who continue his work — and in the lives of the children and parents who are touched by these efforts.