Thomas Berry Brazelton, Jr., renowned pediatrician and early childhood development specialist, popular television show host, and author, was born on May 10, 1918, in Waco, Texas. He was the son of Thomas Berry Brazelton, Sr., and Pauline (Battle) Brazelton. Known to most as Berry, not much is known about his early childhood except that his decision to pursue childhood development stemmed from his sometimes tumultuous relationship with his parents as well as his experiences taking care of his many cousins during family gatherings. After graduating from Episcopal High School, a boarding school in Alexandria, Virginia, Brazelton attended Princeton University and graduated with an A.B. in 1940 and a medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1943. In between his degrees, he contemplated a career on Broadway because of his love and talent for singing and dancing but decided against it when his family threatened to withhold funds for medical school. He attended the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston for at least some period of time, as he listed himself as a student there on his World War II draft registration card in 1943. After interning at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, he served in the U. S. Naval Reserve from 1944 to 1945. From 1945 to 1957 he held various residencies and fellowships at Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston), Children’s Hospital (Boston), the James Jackson Putnam Children’s Center (Roxbury, Massachusetts), and Harvard Medical School (Boston). He married Christina Lowell in 1949. They had four children.
In 1950 Brazelton began his private practice in pediatrics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Three years later he taught courses in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. At this time he began to move beyond the study of pathology and disease when it came to children. He started research on the relationship between parents and babies to better understand infant behavioral and developmental progression; he discovered, most famously, that infants possessed a greater awareness of their environment than scholars and parents thought. In pursuit of this new specialization, Brazelton took a fellowship at Harvard’s Center for Cognitive Studies from 1967 to 1971. In 1972 he became an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. That same year, he founded a pediatric training and research center, the Child Development Unit, at Children’s Hospital in Boston. At the new unit in 1973, Brazelton developed the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS) that tests newborns’ response to light, sound, and touch. Updated in 1984 and 1995, the NBAS, which was dubbed “the Brazelton,” is used by clinicians and researchers worldwide to indicate developmental problems as early as possible. Brazelton served as the director of the Child Development Unit until 1989. By that time, after being named Harvard Medical School’s clinical professor of pediatrics in 1986, he held the title of professor of pediatrics, emeritus, at Harvard.
Alongside his successful medical career, Brazelton wrote important medical findings for parents who were searching for answers about parenthood and their child’s development. He authored his first book in 1969, Infants and Mothers: Differences in Development, which sold more than one million copies. Brazelton’s most famous books—the Touchpoints series—were based on developmental milestones of children and included Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development (1992) and Touchpoints Three to Six: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development (2001). In them, Brazelton covered the first years of a child’s life when developmental spurts may cause issues for the entire family. The aim of the series was to assure parents that hurdles in early childhood are predictable and normal. In addition to authoring books, he wrote monthly columns in Family Circle and Redbook, and in 1989 he wrote a cover story titled “Why is America Failing Its Children?” for the New York Times Magazine. In the article, Brazelton used his expertise to highlight the struggles of disadvantaged children in the United States.
His success as an early childhood development expert led to his television show, What Every Baby Knows, which aired from 1983 to 1995. The show and Brazelton became household names, especially for parents, and in 1994 Brazelton received the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Service Show Host. His fame and expertise likely propelled him into national leadership positions. From 1988 to 1991 Brazelton was appointed to the National Commission on Children. A known advocate for mandated maternity leave, he lobbied for the passage of the Family Leave Act in 1993. In 1995 Harvard Medical School established the T. Berry Brazelton Professorship in Pediatrics in his honor. In 1996 he established the Brazelton Touchpoints Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Brazelton lectured, appeared on television, and continued to write into the 2000s. During his career he held many professional memberships, including service as president of the Society for Research and Child Development and president of the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs. He also served as a professor of psychiatry and human development at Brown University. His last book was his memoir—Learning to Listen: A Life Caring for Children (2013). In 2013 President Barack Obama awarded him the second highest civilian recognition, the Presidential Citizens Medal. T. Berry Brazelton died at his home in Barnstable, Massachusetts, on March 13, 2018, three years after his wife Christina passed away. His papers are located in the Harvard Medical Library.