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Brazelton 20th Anniversary Conference Review

The Brazelton Centre UK celebrated its twentieth anniversary (1997-2017) with a dazzling and informative day conference held at the Møller Centre at Churchill College in Cambridge on 21st September 2017. Since there is such a great overlap between our Birthlight science-backed principles of practice and the Brazelton approach, this year we decided to invite the audience of our annual Womb to Birth conferences in Cambridge to this important Brazelton celebration conference. It was a pleasure to hear about all the personal connections between Cambridge UK and Cambridge Mass in the US in the 1970s and 1980s that led to the development of the Brazelton Centre UK under the leadership of Dr Joanna Hawthorne as presented not only by the Director of the Brazelton Harvard Institute, Dr Kevin Nugent, but by other speakers.  Dr Barry Brazelton, a visionary pediatrician now in his 90s, lifted newborns forever out of the “buzzing blooming confusion” that they were held as creatures that could only respond to the environment with innate reflexive responses (William James). Bringing together the pioneering research of several scientists in the 1960s, Brazelton promoted an understanding of newborns as “competent”, “organized”, “social” and remarkably individual. It may seem strange in 2017 that fifty years ago most people did not realize that newborns can hear, see, smell and taste, but there is still a long way to go among clinicians and the public to perceive babies as the amazing interactive beings that they are from birth (and earlier). Colwyn Trevarthen, whose research inspired by Brazelton pushed the boundaries of inter-musicality and rhythmicity, showed in images how “fetuses suck their thumbs with rhythmic grace” in utero. On their birth day, infants expect connection and seek contact while expressing themselves with voice and movements. His classic recording of a blind baby accurately marking the beat of Beethoven’s moon sonata illustrates well how we are born to learn and grow by sharing stories in intimate interactions with close adults.

The genius of Berry Brazelton was to nest a positive educational set of tools helping parents to “see” and make sense of their enigmatic new babies (and in so doing, to feel that they can better relate to them) in a behavioural assessment format. The NBAS (Newborn Behavioral Assessment Scale) was developed in 1973, later complemented by the NBO (Newborn Behavioral Observation System), in 1985, to meet parents’ needs more directly. By providing this behavioral profile of the infant's strengths and challenges, the NBO can provide clinicians with the kind of individualized guidance that can help parents meet their baby's needs. This, in turn, will help the parents develop the kind of confidence they need to support their baby's development and enjoy the experience of being a new parent.

Several presentations and a dozen of interesting posters supported the relevance of the Brazelton tools to assess and predict child health development in a non-judgmental, non- didactic way with priority given to prevention and early support. The conference overall endorsed the need to assist parents emphasise their infants’ competences and understand difficulties as developmental challenges that can be at least partly met with responsive openness. The issue of emotional availability seems to remain pivotal to parents’ ability to perceive their babies as persons in the context of interactive relationships.  Researcher/paediatrician Dieter Wolke could show with data from eight countries the long-term importance of the early parental ability to support babies in self-regulation.

The Conference reinforced the urgency of a behavioural focus rather than merely looking at neurological problems or advising psychological interventions, as endorsed by the Cambridge Centre for Perinatal Neuroscience where 84% of practitioners are NBO trained.

While Birthlight training tutors have done a collective NBO, this course is relevant to all Birthlight teaching members and we will seek ways to support further trainings. Inviting observations, welcoming and reinforcing parents’ expertise, offering responsive guidance rather than advice and inviting parents to see their own strengths through our support are professional guidelines that we are grateful to Dr Brazelton for giving the world. All babies, all parents and all practitioners working with them whether in hospitals or in communities can only benefit, short and long term, from this paradigmatic shift in the perception and treatment of newborns.

Françoise Freedman
Birthlight Founder & Director