Pioneering Pediatrician Passes

Brazelton was world-renowned pioneer in pediatric care, child development

T. Berry Brazelton, HMS clinical professor of pediatrics emeritus at Children’s Hospital Boston, a prolific scholar, author and, for the past half-century, a beloved resource for parents, died on March 13, at the age of 99.

Brazelton pioneered research into the normal development of infants and young children, publishing more than 200 scientific papers and chapters and 30 books.

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He studied the development of attachment between parent and infant over the first four months, including cross-cultural studies of infant behavior and early parenting practices.

His work emphasized the importance of early intervention for at-risk infants and their parents, with particular attention to premature and small-for-gestational-age infants. He also highlighted opportunities presented in early infancy for strengthening families.

T. Berry Brazelton. Image: Wikimedia/Ninjaassasinman
T. Berry Brazelton. Image: Wikimedia/Ninjaassasinman

Brazelton’s philosophy was summed up in the title of his memoir, published when he was 95: Learning to Listen: A Life Caring for Children.

“Listen to the baby,” he would say, when giving advice to parents or to clinicians.

One of Brazelton’s lasting achievements in pediatrics is the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS), published in 1973 and revised in the mid-1980s.

Known as “the Brazelton,” the tool is used by physicians and researchers worldwide to evaluate not only the physical and neurological responses of newborns, but also their emotional well-being and individual differences. It is often used to help parents understand and relate to their infants.

When the T. Berry Brazelton Professorship in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s was established in his honor in 1995, David Weiner, then president of the hospital, said Brazelton’s “visionary ideas about raising children in modern society have influenced fellow pediatricians, medical educators, researchers, public policy decision makers and thousands of families throughout the world.”

Brazelton founded the Brazelton Touchpoints Center at Boston Children’s in 1996 to carry forward the training and professional development in the Touchpoints approach that he started with the NBAS and pursued over decades at the Child Development Unit at Boston Children’s.

Brazelton reached out to parents directly in many ways, including through the books Infants and Mothers: Individual Differences in Development, Toddlers and Parents: A Declaration of Independence, Doctor and Child, On Becoming a Family, What Every Baby Knows, The Earliest Relationship, Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development, Birth to Three and Touchpoints: Three to Six.

From 1984 to 1995, he hosted the television program “What Every Baby Knows,” for which he won an Emmy in 1994. He also wrote monthly columns in Redbook and Family Circle magazines and published a weekly newspaper column distributed by the New York Times Syndication Sales Corporation.

Infants and Environment

Brazelton was born on May 10, 1918, in Waco, Texas, to Thomas Berry Brazelton and Pauline (Battle) Brazelton. He graduated from Princeton University in 1940 and earned his MD from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1943.

Brazelton completed an internship at New York's Roosevelt Hospital and served in the United States Naval Reserve from 1944 to 1945. Over the next five years he was a resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, a pediatrics resident at Boston Children’s, a training fellow in child psychiatry at the James Jackson Putnam Children’s Center in Roxbury, and a research fellow in child psychiatry at HMS.

In 1950, Brazelton began a private pediatrics practice in Cambridge, becoming an HMS instructor in pediatrics at in 1953. Interested in understanding children beyond pathology and disease, he undertook research with parents and babies to better understand an infant’s behavioral and developmental progress.

His research showed that babies were much more aware of their environment than was previously thought: A four-month-old fetus can be startled by loud noises, an infant can distinguish between a drawing of an oval and a drawing of a human face, and a baby as young as three weeks can differentiate between the voice of its mother and the voice of its father. To study the stages of healthy child development further, in 1967 Brazelton entered a fellowship at Harvard University’s Center for Cognitive Studies, which he completed in 1971.

A year later, Brazelton established the Child Development Unit at the Boston Children’s. The pediatric training and research center offers doctors the opportunity to conduct research on child development while training for clinical work with parents and children.

Lifetime of Service

Brazelton became an HMS associate professor of pediatrics in 1972, a clinical professor of pediatrics in 1986 and professor of pediatrics emeritus in 1988. In 1992, the T. Berry Brazelton Chair for Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital was established, with Judith Palfrey named as its first incumbent in 1995.

During this time, Brazelton also served as chair for the Section on Child Development for the American Academy of Pediatrics, president of the Society for Research and Child Development, professor of psychiatry and human development at Brown University and president of the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs.

Brazelton continued to work on children’s issues in the 1980s, accompanying U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colorado) on a nationwide tour to draw attention to family concerns and serving as a member of the National Commission on Children.

In 1989, Brazelton wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine titled “Why Is America Failing Its Children?” in which he detailed the plight of disadvantaged children. In the 1990s and into the 2000s, Brazelton continued to teach medical students and residents, appear on television programs and lecture widely. He also helped lobby for passage of the 1993 Family Leave Act. In February 2013, he received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Barack Obama.

"In his research and his tireless advocacy on behalf of families with young children, T. Berry has been a towering figure in pediatrics,” James Mandell, chief executive of Boston Children’s, said on the occasion.

“His breakthroughs in detecting physical and neurological responses of newborns created a roadmap for pediatricians leading to improved care and attention to the emotional well-being of countless children,” Mandell said.

"I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Brazelton only once, just a little over a year ago when he visited my next-door neighbor in Cambridge, who was one of his longtime friends," said HMS Dean George Q. Daley. "I was delighted to meet a living legend of medicine. At age 98, Dr. Brazelton still had the spirit, spark, and twinkle in his eye of a master pediatrician. His energy and optimism were an inspiration to me. He will be sorely missed."

Brazelton’s life and legacy will be honored at a symposium and celebration hosted by the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, on April 23 at the Boston Marriott Newton. Further details can be found here.

Brazelton was predeceased by his wife of 66 years, Christina Lowell, who died in 2015. He leaves their four children, Catherine Bowles, Pauline Battle, Christina Lowell and Thomas Berry III, and several grandchildren.