Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Berry Brazelton: common-sense child-raising

A prominent lawyer for a national women's organization, she had waited until she was 36 to have her first child. Now, balancing her five-month-old baby on her lap, she told her pediatrician she was torn about leaving her infant to go back to work.

''She couldn't believe how much she'd fallen in love with her baby,'' Berry Brazelton explains with a soft Texas accent. ''She wasn't getting any help from her old career-oriented beliefs, because they'd been so one-sided, and she was tearing herself apart as she tried to reconcile these two very different parts of herself.''

About these ads

After listening to the new mother's concerns, Dr. Brazelton advised her not to wean her baby before she returned to work. That way, he said, she could solidify her relationship with her child when she returned home from the office each evening.

''She sat down and cried at that point, and said, 'That's what I needed to hear.' ''

Dr. Brazelton describes this recent encounter in his Cambridge office as typical of the kinds of challenges many parents are facing today. It also is representative of the kind of supportive response parents have come to expect from the pediatrician who's often described as America's foremost baby doctor.

Author of four bestsellers (''Infants and Mothers,'' ''Toddlers and Parents, '' ''Doctor and Child,'' and ''On Becoming a Family''), Dr. Brazelton still finds time between his Harvard classes, hospital rounds, and talk-show appearances to carry on his private practice.

He not only counts Benjamin Spock's grandchildren among his patients, but also appears to have stepped into the national spotlight that once shone on the man who made ''permissive'' a household word. But where Dr. Spock was accused of undermining parents' roles by persuading them that the experts knew best, Dr. Brazelton encourages parents to follow their own instincts in raising their children.

As his wife, Christina, puts it: ''The thing that bothered Berry when he was starting out in his practice 30 years ago was how confused mothers were becoming by all the literature that told them what to do. Although he's always felt that there was a lot of opposition to his work - that scientists don't accept intuition as hard fact - he's seen his contribution as confirming for people what they already know but haven't given themselves credit for.''

Dr. Brazelton is at the forefront of what many doctors are calling a revolution in pediatric care. ''He's the head of a new movement that's looking to change the curriculum in medical schools,'' says a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. ''With the lessening of childhood diseases, the pressure is on today to learn more about the care of well babies and more about the social aspects of child development.''

About these ads

Ever since his growing-up days in Waco, Texas, surrounded by hordes of young cousins, Berry Brazelton knew he wanted to be a pediatrician. ''I went into it for the same reason everyone else does - I liked children. I wanted to know what makes a baby tick. I wanted to understand what makes children want to go on developing, why they look so excited sometimes.''

Medical school was a disappointment, however. ''Pediatricians have always been trained for diseases,'' he explains, ''but 80 percent of our work is normal child development and backing up young parents.

''What we've been trying to do at Harvard for the past few years is to show pediatricians how to work with families,'' he continues. ''They need to know how to establish relationships with their patients that will allow their patients to let down their hair and tell them what's on their minds and hearts.''

The four common-sense child-rearing manuals that Dr. Brazelton has written have been a family project in many ways. What he writes in the morning, Christina often edits in the afternoon. Recently their daughter Christina, a creative-writing student at City College of New York, helped to revise ''Infants and Mothers,'' first published in 1969. The new version speaks more directly to and about fathers, and it is as supportive of single and working parents in print as Dr. Brazelton is in practice.

''I knew the old book had been aimed at an attachment model that was somewhat out of date - the model of a mother at home with her baby all the time,'' he notes. ''Whatever we all might wish for, the reality is that 58 percent of mothers aren't at home with their babies, and it's time we faced that.''

Dr. Brazelton still thinks a mother's most important job is being with her young children - for at least their first four months, and preferably for the first year - but he says he has come to realize that many women either want or need to work. Rather than press a mother to stay at home, he now sees his role as encouraging her to find what he calls a good motherly substitute.

''His attitudes used to be pretty antiquated,'' says daughter Polly, a bank vice-president. ''My sisters and I have tried to get him to see that what women want for themselves is just as important as what they want for their children. It's taken him a while to come along, but it's a good indication of his ability to change. For his field, he's extremely flexible.''

He also is extremely busy. A recently hired business agent handles the logistics of his speaking engagements and publishing contracts, and Dr. Brazelton uses every moment of spare time - including a week's vacation at his summer home here overlooking Cape Cod Bay - to work on his next book. When the phone rings, however, he's on his feet and running.

''That's great!'' he bellows into the receiver, then rushes back into the sunny room to announce the latest details of a forthcoming trip to the People's Republic of China. In chino pants, blue bolero shirt, and handwoven Mexican serape, he looks as if he's come from a campus poetry reading. His eyes are a Caribbean blue and they gleam with the excitement of a small child who's just been given the keys to the Magic Kingdom at Disneyland.

''They've made arrangements for me to go out into homes to see newborn babies while we're in China!'' he shouts. ''I told them I wouldn't need an interpreter or anything - that watching what mothers do with their babies is just my language!''

Dr. Brazelton relates to infants the way some people talk to parakeets or porpoises. ''He's so amazing with babies,'' says daughter Kitty, who once learned an exotic Mayan dialect so she could accompany her father on field studies to remote Mexican villages. ''He just has an incredible communication with them.''

His success with babies ultimately depends upon his success with parents, and much of Dr. Brazelton's work has focused on learning how to provide the support that he says is so vital for new parents. He has asked his own patients to keep detailed journals of their relationships with their children, and he literally has traveled the world to study family patterns in other cultures.

''With 58 percent of children under the age of eight in secondary (non-parental) care and about one-third of all children in single-parent families, we're in a pretty isolated and grim time for both parents and children ,'' he notes. ''Where I feel I can play a role is in exposing the need for the generations to come together again. We've just come onto these statistics, and now we have to rethink our values and rethink the kinds of backup we can provide for families.''

Dr. Brazelton says he has recently begun work for a national committee headed by Yale professor Ed Zigler that will lobby for paid maternity leave for mothers , ''and I hope for fathers, too.'' He also points to several group-living experiments in California that are bringing together grandparents, parents, and young children in condominium complexes. ''It's really a chance to show people how much they need each other,'' he explains. ''The grandparents get a tremendous boost out of helping to care for the kids; the young parents see how much they need them; and the children, of course, get a chance to see all three generations at work.

''For some reason, it's easier to take on somebody else's parents than your own,'' he adds, ''but I think programs like these will eventually lead us back to the old values.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.