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At 88, renowned baby doc still soothing parents

/ Source: The Associated Press

Dr. T. Berry Brazelton loves to tell a story about a young father shopping with his 2-year-old daughter. She suddenly throws herself on a department store floor in a “rip-roaring” tantrum.

Embarrassed by shoppers’ accusing stares, the man wraps the screaming girl tightly in his overcoat and races down four flights of stairs to get her outside. He unwraps her, sees she’s turned a deathly shade of blue, and for a second fears the worst until it’s clear she’s OK.

That flustered father was Brazelton himself, struggling through a moment nearly every parent has faced, and overreacting in a not-so-exemplary manner.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve killed her,”’ Brazelton recalls, now able to chuckle over the 53-year-old memory.

It’s a story that instantly brings the renowned baby doctor down to earth, a display of the plainspokenness that has helped make him a parenting guru almost since the first of his 40 books came out in 1969.

The advice has changed with the times — back-sleeping for babies instead of stomach-sleeping; endorsing working women now, not just stay-at-home moms; and, in his newest book, tips for helping kids cope with terrorism fears.

Reassurance, not rules

But at 88, Brazelton is still going strong, working nearly seven days a week, writing, teaching and lecturing around the country. His agenda includes frequent visits to the 70-plus sites nationwide that use his Touchpoints approach in helping parents raise healthy children, including Indian reservations and social-service agencies.

His methods and mantra remain the same — offering thoughtful, reassuring advice rather than absolute rules, and letting parents make their own decisions about what works, while explaining what’s going on at each stage of child development to make their job easier.

After decades of studying child development, Brazelton now knows that his daughter’s first temper tantrum was an “absolutely normal” part of being 2. These fits reflect what he famously calls “touchpoints” or moments when children’s behavior seems to fall apart that signal an impending rapid spurt of development.

A revised edition of his national best-seller, “Touchpoints Birth to Three,” was published in October. In it, he says that momentarily walking away will help the tantrum lose force. Returning quickly and gently advising that they need to work it out on their own gives children space to resolve their own turmoil, Brazelton says.

The doctor sat down for an interview during a recent visit to the Chicago area, where his itinerary included addressing a forum for parents of children with special needs.

His hair is silver now, but his handshake is strong and his broad smile warm and welcoming. His voice bears a hint of drawl from his native Texas despite an Ivy League education and decades at Harvard Medical School, where he’s now professor emeritus.

His manner is a mix of Marcus Welby and Mister Rogers, blending the TV doctor’s kindly demeanor with the slow-speaking gentleness of another TV old-timer whose empathetic approach to children mirrored Brazelton’s.

With a twinkle in his crinkly blue eyes, Brazelton gives an almost Freudian explanation of what led him to pediatrics.

“I knew what I wanted to do when I was 9 years old because I hated my younger brother,” he said. That, he said, was because his mother so blatantly favored the younger boy.

“I think I thought, well, at least I can take care of other children,” Brazelton said.

He was the oldest of almost a dozen cousins. And his beloved paternal grandmother “always put me to work taking care of all of them while the adults had cocktails before dinner.”

“So I had to learn how to get inside of each of these children’s brains to keep control ... and it was wonderful to learn to watch their behavior,” Brazelton said.

He was born Thomas Berry Brazelton on May 10, 1918 in Waco, Texas. His civic leader mother established what was likely the first abortion clinic in Texas in the early 1940s. His father was a broadminded businessman who died when Brazelton was 18. The emotional blow still seems fresh when he mentions it.

“You think, gosh, 18, I would have known a lot about him, but I didn’t. You really need your parents at that time.”

Now a father of four grown children and grandfather of six, Brazelton lives with his wife, Christina, in Cambridge, near Harvard’s campus outside Boston.

He worries that his own children suffered from his workaholic lifestyle, which until a few years ago included working as a pediatrician. His children’s classmates included many of his patients.

“When I’d go to their school on parents’ day, all of my patients would climb up in my lap and my own children would sit across the room sucking their thumbs,” he said.

“The kids grew up feeling that dad loves other kids just as much as he loves me and of course, that wasn’t true, but this is the sort of perception that children have if you have a dedication like I had.”

Benjamin Spock, America’s first widely read baby doctor, was a role model and Spock’s grandchildren were among Brazelton’s patients. Brazelton liked Spock’s approach, which empowered parents to make their own decisions and respected children as individuals rather than appendages.

“Rather than compete, I always felt like I added the concept of looking at the child, finding out what the child is trying to tell you and let them lead you,” he said.

'He's the man'

It’s an approach that has won him fans worldwide.

Brazelton protege and co-author Dr. Joshua Sparrow, a psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital Boston who contributes to Brazelton’s syndicated newspaper column “Families Today,” says being on the road with Brazelton is like traveling with a rock star.

“Whenever we’re in airports or airplanes people stop and say, ’If it weren’t for you, I never would have made it through my first child,” Sparrow said. “People come up just enormously grateful.”

Chicago-based columnist Amy Dickinson of “Ask Amy” fame, is among Brazelton fans and frequently calls on him or his books to help address readers’ concerns.

“He’s the man as far as I’m concerned” when it comes to early childhood development, she said.

Much of Brazelton’s advice is common sense but nonetheless very reassuring to nervous new parents, Dickinson said.

Cathy Rodriques, a suburban Chicago social worker who helped arrange Brazelton’s recent appearances at a parents’ forum and health professionals meeting in Arlington Heights, Ill., says she raised her two children, now teens, with Brazelton’s help.

“He’s the best, what can I say,” Rodriques said. “The way he writes his books is like you’re talking with him. He’s very down-to-earth and practical and respects the parents’ perspective and does not come from, 'I’m a medical person and I know what’s best for your child.”’