Investigating the Distinct Personality of the Newborn

Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, associate professor of Pediatrics at the Medical School is something of a renegade. At 65 his passion is babies, and he continues his lifelong work of documenting the distinct personalities of newborns, striking out beyond traditional medical research and delving into child development and psychology. He seeks through his non-traditional research and overall approach to understand each infant as a whole individual, and to communicate this understanding to their parents.

The renegade attitude began early. "I hated medical school." Brazelton says, then pausing, shakes his head. "It was such an intellectual brainwashing. I wanted to treat my patients like people not just diseases."

That attitude has helped make Brazelton "responsible for bringing the newborn into the forefront of our curiosity," says Lewis P. Lipsitt, professor of Psychology and Director of the Child Study Center at Brown.

Brazelton has managed to bring babies personalities to almost everyone's attention by keeping a working schedule that keeps him running. He splits his time between his practice, which he is soon to give up, his research on infant behavior, his teaching at Children's Hospital, and his more public work: the books, articles, and television appearences designed to make child-raising easier for parents. Between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. every day he has his "phone hour," which he devotes to reassuring anxious mothers, some patients and some strangers.

This human approach is Brazelton's secret to success with infant research. "For a long time, people thought babies couldn't even see or heat because they'd just set one on a table and show him a ball or ring a bell, and he wouldn't react. But as soon as you pick him up, he can do all these things," he says.


Far from being a lump of clay or a blank slate. Brazelton conceives of a newborn with a distinct personality who has an impact on the parent-child relationship in his own right. This conception relieves some of the anxiety of parents who feel they alone are responsible for their child's character, and who cannot understand how anything could go wrong when they are doing everything right.

"The mothers said, 'Don't blame us one more time.'" Brazelton explains.

This sense of the infant individual, although not exactly originated by Brazelton, has gained acceptance through his work. "Parents can no longer talk about 'the baby,' and neither can academics," says Edward Z. Tronick, professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Massachusetts. "Brazelton has placed the infant in the social context in a way that infants have never seen before," he adds.

Trying to prove that a baby has a distinct personality is a little difficult--the babies he studies do not know how to talk yet. So in order to guage their interactive capabilities, Brazelton had to develop a standard scale of babies behaviors and overcome a long tradition which said babies had no personality.

The Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale has been called a "landmark" and it only requires a flashlight, a red ball, a bell, a rattle and a safety pin. Success depends on the skill of the examiner, who must guide the baby in and out of sleep, calm alertness and crying, while he watches the child's reaction to his simple stimuli. The baby will establish his own pattern of responses out of the infinite number of possibilities, and so give the examiner clues to personal characteristics. "With the scale, we can identify an active baby, a quiet baby, a cuddly baby, a normal baby." Tronick said.

Brazelton's is "the most widely used scale available today," according to Dr. Mishael Lewis, professor of Pediatrics and chief of the Division of Child Development at Rugers Medical School.

For all the widespread professional use of the scale. Brazelton has also become a prominent source of advice for parents.

"Young parents these days are so hungry for information because there isn't the same back-up with an extended family." Brazelton says. Brazelton himself grew up with ten cousins to look after at every family gartering. He credits Dr. Doolittle with steering him into a career taking care of children.

Dubbed the "new Dr. Spock" by the press, Brazelton has become a widely visible figure in the campaign to demystify the child-rearing process for new parents.

To provide this information. Brazelton plans to publish a new book for working mothers in September, writes regularly for Redbook magazine, and appears in a 26-part cable television series that deals with problems such as colic and toilet training.