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Understanding the Language Of Children's Behavior: Lessons From the Research of Berry Brazelton

08/10/2012 02:51 pm ET | Updated Oct 10, 2012

On May 10, 2012, pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton turned 94 years old. On June 18, 2010 The White House honored him as a Champion of Change.

If you ask this inspirational man -- this Professor of Pediatrics Emeritus at Harvard Medical School, this author of the best-selling Touchpoint books, this star of the long-running Lifetime Television show What Every Baby Knows, this founder of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center -- what his most significant accomplishment is, as I did when he received the Families and Work Institute's Work Life Legacy Award in 2010 and when I interviewed him for Mind in the Making, he says: "The Newborn Assessment was really probably the most important thing I ever did for the field."

The Neonatal Newborn Assessment does, in fact, well represent Brazelton's larger contributions, because it, like his other work, helps parents and professionals understand the language of children's behavior and helps us all feel more competent in teaching and caring for children.

Brazelton's passion to understand children has deep roots in his Texas childhood:

As the oldest grandchild of about nine, my grandmother, Berry -- whom I was named for -- always wanted me to take care of these other cousins for every event that went on at her house. And since I had eight small children [to care for], I had to learn how to get inside of them and see how their brains were working. I found that so fascinating, because once you've understood what they were doing, you could take care of eight children at once.

His passion to understand children also has roots in his disdain for the typical attitude among professionals about parents when he began practice as as a pediatrician in the 1950s. Hre recalls, "Everybody blamed the parents when things went wrong with the child."

Brazelton realized -- especially from being a parent himself -- that children's behavior affects parents just as parents' behavior affects children. It is a two-way street. So he became committed to help parents start this journey of parenthood in a positive direction.

Brazelton also felt that most people didn't fully understand the capacities of newborns. He remembers that even as late as the 1970s. "We still didn't think babies could see or hear. Where did we get such a stupid idea?"

But he observed something different. He saw that newborns, even just after birth, had many unique ways of being connected to what was happening around them. It seemed to him that if we as adults could find better ways to tune in to what infants were doing, we could better understand their experiences. To help doctors and families interpret the "language" of the newborn, Brazelton created the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale as a translation and assessment tool.

Observing that the typical newborn pediatric examination at that time tended to over-stimulate newborns, Brazelton saw that the way a baby responds to stimulation tells us a lot about the baby's inborn temperament. He also saw that when babies react to over-stimulation by turning away or falling asleep, this is a positive response -- it's the beginning of self-control.

I have accompanied Brazelton into the hospital rooms of newborns and their parents immediately after childbirth and watched him use the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale with these tiny infants in their first few moments in the world. He holds the baby gently and exclaims over him or her to the parents and then conducts his assessment, which includes stimulating the newborn with a flashlight and a rattle.

These babies, born just minutes or hours before, typically startle at the noise or light and then find a way to recover -- by sucking a finger, shutting their eyes or turning away from the commotion.

The way the baby calms down tells the parents and pediatrician something about how this particular baby responds to a new and somewhat challenging experience. Brazelton then talks to the parents about their child's style of controlling emotions and about how important this skill is to the child's later development. And that's precisely the goal -- to help parents understand their unique child and give them confidence. He says:

The goal for the Neonatal Assessment was to share [this assessment] with parents so they understood what kind of person they were getting and could put all of their passion right where it belonged -- with that child.

The question I've always gotten from a new parent is, "How am I going to know what kind of person this is?" And as soon as you play with a baby, you know!

WATCH: T. Berry Brazelton Demonstrates the Neonatal Newborn Assessment

Not content to rest on his laurels, Brazelton enumerated the work yet to be done when he was honored by The White House, concluding: "We can and must do more. I'm 94 years old, but I'm not done. There's more to do."

When I think of what being a parent was like when my own children were born versus now, I am forever grateful for all that Berry Brazelton has done and will do!