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Sun June 16, 2013
Author Interviews

Dr. Brazelton On Guiding Parents And Learning To Listen

Originally published on Sun June 16, 2013 6:17 pm

For the better part of the past century, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton has studied babies, helping change the way we think about and care for them — right from the time they take their first breaths.

The renowned pediatrician hosted the long-running TV show What Every Baby Knows, and has written more than 30 books about child development. Hospitals worldwide rely on his newborn assessment known as the Brazelton scale.

At age 95, he's still going strong.

He continues to work with the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, a network of training sites he founded for medical professionals, and travels the country speaking publicly about child development.

His latest book is a memoir called Learning to Listen: A Life Caring for Children.

It begins during his boyhood in Waco, Texas. There, his grandmother made the prescient observation, "Berry's so good with babies," pointing the way for his life's work.

"She'd put me to work every Sunday on the front porch of her house, while my parents went in to have cocktails and get drunk," he tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

He was 8 years old when he was put in charge of minding his younger cousins. Brazelton says it was then he learned to pick up on behavioral cues.

"So right from the first, I learned that if you watch a baby and listen to them — or a child — they would tell you what they were about to do," he says. "And I could stop them before they got in trouble, not afterward."

Brazelton went on to study pediatrics and child psychiatry, eventually getting into private practice and teaching parents to get to know their babies.

It was a new way of thinking. Before World War II, babies were not really thought of as individuals.

"I think because we'd lay them out on a cold slab, didn't swaddle them and then confronted them with noises and sights — and these kids wouldn't respond," Brazelton says.

But small changes can yield big results.

"As soon as you wrap them up and cuddle them and bring them up to an alert condition, they'll do anything you want," Brazelton says.

He conducted decades of clinical research, writing more than 200 scholarly papers, and traveling around the world studying child development in various cultures. He says American methods of early parenting don't tend to compare very well.

"I wish that parents were like the parents I saw in Kenya or in southern Mexico, where they carry their babies around and learn about them right from the first," he says.

American parents, Brazelton says, "tend to put a baby down, tend to talk on our cell phones, rather than looking at him and speaking to him."

But, Brazelton says, mistakes are nothing to fear; they're learning opportunities.

"Parents need to understand that they can relax and have fun, because the baby will teach them how to become a parent," he says.

After so many years in the field, the soon-to-be centenarian isn't ready to stop.

"Oh, golly, I don't want to give up," he says. "I learn every time I see a new baby, every time I talk to a new parent."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

On this Father's Day, we turn now to a man who's helped change the way we think about and care for our children from the time they take their first breaths.

For the better part of a century, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton has been studying babies and sharing his knowledge. He hosted the long-running TV show "What Every Baby Knows," and he's written more than 30 books on child development. Hospitals worldwide rely on his newborn assessment known as the Brazelton scale.

And at age 95, the renowned pediatrician is still going strong. His latest book is called "Learning to Listen: A Life Caring for Children." It begins with his own boyhood in Waco, Texas, where his grandmother made the prescient observation: Berry's so good with babies.

DR. T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Well, she'd put me to work every Sunday on the front porch of her house while my parents went in to have cocktails and get drunk. I would sit out there with six younger cousins and have to take care of them for about three hours. And so right from the first, I learned that if you watch the baby and listen to them - or a child - they would tell you what they were about to do, and I could stop them before they got in trouble, not afterward.

LYDEN: This seems radical at the time because, really, up until World War II in which you served, people didn't think of babies as separate beings who had personalities, right?

BRAZELTON: I think because we'd lay them out on a cold slab, didn't swaddle them and then confronted them with noises and sights - and these kids wouldn't respond. They'd habituated. So as soon as you wrap them up and cuddle them and bring them up to an alert condition, they'll do anything you want.

LYDEN: I'm going to try that on a few people I know.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: But you know what, you know, that brings me to something about this book. It's a bit of a travelogue in places. And what's really fascinating is the years that you have spent doing extensive research into the ways that other cultures approach caring for newborns. How would you say that American methods of early parenting compare?

BRAZELTON: I don't think it compares very well. I wish that parents were like the parents I saw in Kenya or in southern Mexico where they carry their babies around and learn about them right from the first. Unfortunately, in this country, we tend to put a baby down, tend to talk on our cellphones rather than looking at him and speaking to him.

LYDEN: I was so taken by your description of mothers and babies on Japan's Goto Islands. And these are remote little fishing islands. Tell me about what you learned there. It's quite remarkable.

BRAZELTON: Well, we spent several years there studying babies. And we realized that these mothers never move fast. They never got excited. They spent most of their days knitting nets for their husbands' fishing. And so when the babies were born, they were already very quite, gentle. And when you picked up a baby in the Gotos and got him alert, he would follow you back and forth for 24 minutes without a break.

And then I did the same study on babies in Tokyo with the same genotypes and their mothers rush around. So this 24 minutes was already down to 18. And then when I went to Los Angeles, it was down to eight. So it taught me that intrauterine experience is very important. And then the other thing that I've learned over there was how wonderfully these mothers were treated right after a baby came.

LYDEN: This is amazing.

BRAZELTON: They were treated like newborns. They were wrapped up with the baby, and they were put on a futon with nothing to do but nurse the baby. They also were picked up and taken to the john and fed like a baby. There was absolutely no postpartum depression.

LYDEN: Oh, my goodness. Is there anything that a modern, typical American mother - what can we take from the Goto Island mothers?

BRAZELTON: I think we got to fight, like I have, for longer parental leave so we can keep mothers at home and have a chance to learn about their babies, learn about themselves as parents. I would like to hope for six months, but we're down to three months in this country, and that's really not enough.

LYDEN: When you were starting out, Dr. Brazelton, right after World War II, could you have envisioned yourself still plugging away many years later at age 95?

BRAZELTON: No, I certainly couldn't.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Does it feel like you've seen it all, or do you continue to learn from babies and young children?

BRAZELTON: Oh, golly. I don't want to give up. I learn every time I see a new baby. Every time I talk to a new parent, I learn from them.

LYDEN: Renowned pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton. His new book is called "Learning to Listen: A Life Caring for Children." Dr. Brazelton, it was such an honor. Thank you so much for spending some time with us.

BRAZELTON: Thank you, Jacki. This was wonderful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.