Books, lectures and TV show emphasized child development.
BARNSTABLE — When pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton died Tuesday at his home in Barnstable at age 99 he left an international legacy as a champion of babies and parents as well as a hole in the heart of the Cape village where he lived out his final days.
Clinical professor of pediatrics emeritus at Boston Children’s Hospital, Brazelton wrote dozens of books about children and infants, including the popular Touchpoints series, which emphasized the importance of parent-child bonding and understanding infant behavioral cues.
Considered the Dr. Benjamin Spock of a new age, Brazelton sought to empower parents and hated the way some societal forces seem to want to condemn instead of help new parents, said Dr. Kevin Nugent, director of the Brazelton Institute at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“He wanted parents to grow into their own skins as parents,” Nugent said. “It was a huge, huge contribution.”
"We all learned a lot from him. He was a great man," Dr. Kenneth Colmer, a pediatrician at Bass River Pediatrics Associates in South Yarmouth, said.
"He did all the groundwork in developmental pediatrics. He was basically the founder of the field," Colmer said.
Brazelton’s first book, “Infants and Mothers,” encouraged parents to be in tune with their infants and not rely on cookie-cutter methods of child rearing.
The message was “babies are different from the very beginning,” Nugent said. “It sounds so trite, but at the time it was quite radical. He put the baby at the center of the equation.”
The Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale developed by Brazelton in 1973 looked not only at an infant’s deficits but also at what the baby could do, see and hear, Nugent said.
“It became a tool parents just loved,” Nugent said.
Born in Waco, Texas, on May 10, 1918, Thomas Berry Brazelton received his medical degree from Columbia University in 1943.
A former professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Brazelton had a pediatrics practice in Cambridge, where he lived with his wife, Christina Lowell Brazelton, who died in 2015.
The family summered in Barnstable, which Brazelton eventually came to consider home base.
In recent years Brazelton visited Sturgis Library in Barnstable, which has a Lowell Room named after his in-laws, Alfred Putnam Lowell and Catherine Bowles Lowell, “three to four times a week,” library director Lucy Loomis said.
About two decades ago Brazelton spoke at the library on the topic of pediatrics, and last year he spoke there about relating to grandchildren, knowing that many grandparents are raising their children’s children, Loomis said.
“He loved movies” and most recently enjoyed borrowing Cary Grant films, Loomis said.
Brazelton was a smiling, generous presence at the library, giving staff, including Loomis, oil paintings he created in the folk art style and donating many, many books to the library’s bookshop, Loomis said.
“A lot of us here grew up taking his advice on raising children,” Loomis said.
She recalled taking notes during Brazelton’s Lifetime network TV show, “What Every Baby Knows,” when her son Nicholas Van Petten, now 27, was a baby.
Brazelton encouraged parents “to really enjoy being a parent, instead of worrying all the time,” Loomis said.
In his books, syndicated columns, lectures, TV show and many interviews — including with the Cape Cod Times — Brazelton stressed the importance to child development of parent-child bonding through physical, visual and vocal communication.
Brazelton told a Times reporter in 1977 about how a 2-pound premature baby began to gain weight with a nurse’s continual attention.
The nurse discovered the baby was reacting to her voice and expressions and became involved with the baby in an active bonding process, Brazelton explained.
Brazelton himself had a famous ability to bond with everybody from infants to scared new parents to academic and political luminaries.
“He could communicate with almost anybody with a smile and a sense of empathy,” said Nugent, who said condolence letters were pouring into the institute from around the world.
Brazelton was critical of societal attitudes toward child rearing in the U.S. and advocated for parental leave legislation, hesaid.
During a discussion at the Library of Congress, Brazelton called the U.S. “the least child- and family-oriented society in the civilized world,” according to a Library of Congress information bulletin in 2000.
In recent years the Brazelton Institute founded by Nugent in 1995 has concentrated on meeting the needs of today’s children and families with research-proven services, Nugent said.
“The key issue today is the isolation parents feel,” he said.
Brazelton enjoyed opening his Cape home to international conferences on pediatrics, Nugent said. “I know Barnstable like the back of my hand.”
"Last year the Cape Cod Council of Churches held a fundraising dinner at his estate in Barnstable," Colmer said. "I'd never met him in person. He got up and he gave a speech to all the people in attendance. He was so kind and so caring. He was signing his books. It was just a wonderful, wonderful evening."
In his final year Brazelton used a walker but remained “bright as a button,” Nugent said. “Even though he was a good age, it seems so difficult to believe this happened.”
No details are available about the death of the man Sandra Fenwick, Boston Children’s Hospital president and CEO, called “the most compassionate of trailblazers” in a statement released by the hospital.
The Touchpoints group from the hospital plans to hold a celebration of Brazelton’s life April 23 at the Newton Marriott, Nugent said, and the Brazelton Institute will hold an international tribute May 24-25 in Florence, Italy.
Known as the baby whisperer, Brazelton, a father of four, also could be called the parent whisperer, those who knew of his work said.
“He was such a soothing character,” Loomis said. “We’re going to miss him.”
— Follow Cynthia McCormick on Twitter: @Cmccormickcct.