Berry Brazelton just loves being around little ones


May 05, 1991|By Randi Henderson | Randi Henderson,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Washington--There's no mistaking the fact that pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton is a man who loves babies, loves them unashamedly and unself-consciously.

Just watch the way he imitates a thumb-sucker, sticking his own thumb in his mouth, drawing in his cheeks, capturing the pleasure and satisfaction of one of childhood's most identifiable habits.

Just look at him encircled by three toddlers, strangers to him, little ones who have been momentarily hijacked by a photographer because it seems only fitting that this famous baby doctor have his picture taken with babies. See how he forestalls a tearful eruption from one, gently quiets the squirminess of another.

And listen to him talk about one of his newest and most poignant interests, trying to help the babies of addicted mothers:

"We're not going to let the babies go," Dr. Brazelton said resolutely, speaking of a project to set up fragile mother-fragile baby centers to work with addicted mothers and their babies.

Taking a break last week during meetings of the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs -- he helped found the group 14 years ago and remains on the board of directors -- Dr. Brazelton spoke with optimism of the first steps under way to try to help addicted mothers.

"If we use the baby as our language, maybe we can reach the mothers," he said. "Women can be motivated way beyond anything they think or we think they can do, using their babies for motivation. Let's see how many we can salvage."

And when asked for clarification -- is he talking about saving the babies or the mothers? -- Dr. Brazelton made it perfectly clear that even if some mothers are beyond saving, if he has anything to do with it, not a single baby will be lost because a mother uses drugs.

"We will save the babies."

The ravages of drugs are just one of the problems relating to children that Dr. Brazelton encounters as he traverses the country, filming segments for his cable TV show (it's been running for eight years on Lifetime and just had the contract renewed) and making public appearances like those scheduled this week in Baltimore.

His television exposure, he said colloquially, "is what made me hit the fan. I could have written books, taught at Harvard, all the rest, it wouldn't matter. But now, with that kind of visibility, I have a chance to work on the Hill [to influence national legislation], to have people really know me in a way that has given me a whole new chance to do things for kids."

He has, in fact, written books (23 at last count), taught at Harvard (since 1953) and "all the rest," which has made him the country's second most famous pediatrician. (His friend and colleague, the late Benjamin Spock, remains firmly entrenched in the No. 1 position.) And though Dr. Brazelton turns 73 this week, he has no intention of retiring.

"I've always wanted to do exactly what I'm doing," he said, the twangs of his native Waco, Texas, still coloring his speech.

"Since I was 9, I've known that I wanted to be a pediatrician and work with babies," he added. "I always wanted to be like Dr. Dolittle, to do with kids what he did with animals."

Although he had only one sibling -- a brother 2 1/2 years younger, now deceased -- Berry Brazelton grew up with nine younger cousins in the area. "I was always assigned to take care of them," he recalls. "I remember my grandmother saying when I was 7, 'Berry has such a way with babies.' "

Working with babies, he recognized intuitively, and then from more systematic study, that infants are not blank slates, as some development experts had postulated. "In the early '50s, I worked a child psychiatric center," he said, "and the mother was blamed for all the child's deviations. I thought, not only is that not fair, but it doesn't work. The baby makes a major contribution to this.

"So I started looking at newborn behavior and I thought the old myths were absurd. Babies have very definite personalities that they bring to a relationship. That's been the basis of all my work."

Married for 42 years, Dr. Brazelton is the father of three daughters and a son, aged 26 to 39. But so far, much to his dismay, there is only one grandchild.

"I keep saying to these daughters of mine, 'Get going.' It might be all right for them to wait until they're in their late 30s to have babies, but it's not all right for me."

He was a pretty good father when his children were babies, he said, but fathering adolescents was a different matter altogether. "I was great when they were little," he said, "and terrible when they were adolescents. I just couldn't tolerate all the acting out that they had to do. And, of course, now that's all they remember about me as a father."

Recalling his own parenting experiences and those of the parents he worked with a generation ago as a young pediatrician, Dr. Brazelton said that today's young parents are faced with a much more difficult task in raising their families.

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