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Thomas Brazelton's Theories on Child Development

by Benna Crawford

Small humans have a steep learning curve and even the best parents can expect to make that sometimes bumpy journey with them. Dr. Thomas Brazelton, better known as T. Berry Brazelton, examined the developmental spurts that characterize early childhood and produced a series of books and innovative pediatric approaches that have changed the way society regards caring for children.

Basic Brazelton

They call him the “baby whisperer,” a term that communicates Brazelton’s empathy and respect for infants and children and acknowledges the acceptance of his theories. Brazelton is clinical professor of pediatrics emeritus at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, Children’s Hospital Boston. He is also the author of bestselling books that examine important relationships in the lives of babies and young children, and how those early experiences shape the development of the child. At the heart of his work is the observation that infants and children understand far more than is commonly recognized, and that they communicate clearly what they want. Developmental milestones typically come with regressive behavior that can provoke parents to self-doubt and despair. Knowing what to expect lets a parent relax and a child tackle each breakthrough confidently.

Birth to Age 3

Touchpoints are what Brazelton calls the predictable developmental leaps that can result in difficult behavior before the serene integration of a new skill. Brazelton identified a dozen of these moments in a baby’s first year and three to four in each subsequent year. The exhausted parents of a newborn might miss the fact that sensory overload can cause an infant to be fussy. Once sight, sound, touch, taste and smell are less startling, curiosity takes over and babies want to know more -- everything goes in the mouth. Stranger awareness at 6 months of age and separation anxiety at 9 months of age turn into biting and temper tantrums to signal the stress of being 1 and walking. The allure of 2-year-old independence generates some pint-sized tyrants before peer relationships get interesting at age 3, when affection and setting limits are equally important.

Ages 4 to 6

The tumultuous launch into life is easier to manage when you know the blueprint and Brazelton provides parents with strategies and reassurance for coping -- and for supporting the intrepid explorer. At ages 4 through 6, the child interacts significantly with the wider world. Four-year-olds are open-hearted and open-minded and experiment audaciously with new friendships, blurred boundaries between fantasy and fact, and endless repetitions of “Why?” Five-year-olds are prone to nightmares, can be righteous little moralists and love to play games with rules. Sixes are awestruck at the authority of their first-grade teachers, identify more with peers, and are so addicted to winning that they might cheat or steal. At every stage, children need help to find their balance and learn appropriate social behaviors as they form a healthy sense of self.

Effect of Touchpoints

Even in the case of preemies or other deviations from the norm, the touchpoints occur at regular intervals, if somewhat later or earlier in development. The stages are sources of potential disruption in the family equilibrium so being prepared for them prevents frustration and negative reactions that can derail learning and skill acquisition. Eating, talking, walking, toilet training, social interaction and cognition might all be thrown off-course if the child’s behavior and the parents’ response don’t mesh. Brazelton’s touchpoints are the road map for both pediatrics and parenting. His assertions that parents are the experts on their own children and children are capable of communicating their needs continue to influence family dynamics and the approach service providers take in early childhood development.

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