Baby Love

I just returned from a meeting in Washington DC where I had the honor and joy of listening to one of my top three heroes in the Child and Parenting world, T. Berry Brazelton.*

For those who don’t know him (sure, like there’s a parent out there who doesn’t), Dr. Brazelton was one of the first pediatricians and child development experts to learn and teach about the wisdom of newborns. Back when most of the world thought a just-born baby was a lump of undeveloped clay who couldn’t really see, hear, or respond, Berry Brazelton was starting to notice something different. He saw that babies were much more involved with their environment than many believed.

He found that as early as four months into development a fetus’s nervous system reacts to a loud noise with a startle response, and that a newborn, only days old, can distinguish between a blank oval and a drawing of a human face. He discovered that, at three weeks, a baby can distinguish between the voices of its mother and its father. Brazelton’s acute powers of observation led to the development of the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale which is now used at hospitals all over the world.

That’s just a small piece of his lengthy bio, and more important than any of this is what lies at the core of all these accomplishments: This guy loves babies. Adores them. Truly gets them. And it comes across loud and clear when you listen to him speak about his work. He is the iconic baby whisperer.

Dr. Brazelton is 92 (92!), and he still accepts as many speaking engagements as he can. He tells about what drew him to pediatrics (“I hated my little brother, who took my mother’s attention away, but my grandmother would let me look after my younger cousins, and I just loved it”), and how the babies and mothers in his practice taught him the principles that led to his research (“I saw that when new mothers were depressed, their babies didn’t engage and try to get their attention”). He sometimes loses his train of thought when discussing studies and findings, and needs a quick prompt to re-focus (he is 92, after all).

But when he tells the stories about the babies it’s magical, as if he’s right there in the room experiencing each moment in real time.

He describes the anxiety and tension in the body of a brand new mother who’s having a hard time breastfeeding and fears that her baby isn’t gaining weight. He explains how he ignores baby at first, working to engage Mom until he sees all her muscles relax. Only then does he reach for her child and begin to explore the feeding struggles, their connection formed. As he speaks you can almost see the frightened mother and touch the tiny newborn.

He paints a picture of the 8 month old who enters his office (his Cambridge, Massachusetts home, really) clinging to Mom’s chest, little legs wrapped around her waist like the picture in the chapter describing stranger anxiety. He wouldn’t dream of speaking directly to that little guy, or making eye contact, much less trying to peel him from his mother. He looks past him, just a few inches above or next to his head, playing hard to get until kiddo’s curiosity wins out over fear and he reaches to grab at the tantalizing stethoscope. And still, Brazelton waits until he’s ready to flirt and connect. Now they’re friends.

As I listen, I’m entranced. I’m in love. His body moves and his voice changes to match those long-ago babies. This is why we’re here, doing our best to keep children safe and help them thrive. I needed Berry Brazelton to remind me. So now I’ll go back to my old copies of Touchpoints and Infants and Mothers and get a refresher, and maybe you’ll want to take a look at those classics he wrote, too.

What makes T. Berry Brazelton a child development icon isn’t his long list of awards and professorships. It’s not the institute named after him at Harvard Medical School, or the page after page of scholarly articles, or the generations of young doctors who have been inspired by his work. What makes him Berry Brazelton is simple. In his own words at 92 … “I sure do love babies”.

Can’t you feel the magic?

* In case you’re wondering, my other top two heroes are Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) and an inspiring professor who taught me during residency, Deborah Stewart, MD. I thank them both for enriching my knowledge of children beyond measure.


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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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