Dr. Brazelton On Guiding Parents And Learning To Listen

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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."

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