Kathryn Barnard, a pioneer in infant mental health, dies
Dr. Kathryn E. Barnard, UW School of Nursing professor emeritus and eponymous founder of the school’s Barnard Center on Infant Mental Health and Development, died June 27. She was 77.
Barnard was an internationally recognized pioneer in the field of infant mental health, which studies the social and emotional development of children during the first five years of life. She was a renowned researcher, teacher and innovator.
She also served on the Board of Directors of the ZERO TO THREE National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families and as a board member of the World Association of Infant Mental Health.
“Dr. Barnard was a visionary nurse scientist who believed deeply that every child not only has the right to early nurturing relationships, but also that those relationships are the foundation for life-long healthy development,” said Azita Emami, dean of the UW School of Nursing. “This belief inspired her landmark research and compelled her to provide tools and professional development to infant and early childhood mental-health practitioners so that every child could experience the best possible start.”
Barnard was born in 1938 in Omaha, Neb., the only child of a Union Pacific Railroad worker and homemaker. She wanted to be a nurse since the first grade. In 1954, she got her first nursing job at Douglas County Hospital in Nebraska. She graduated from the University of Nebraska with her bachelor's of science in nursing in 1960.
After earning her master’s degree at Boston University, she was recruited in 1963 to the University of Washington, where she stayed until her retirement in 2006.
In the 1970s, when Barnard began her studies of infants and their parents, there was minimal appreciation for the connections between earliest communication, touch, brain growth and the ways humans develop the social, emotional and behavioral capacities to self-regulate, connect with others and experience the world as a safe and predictable place.
In 1971, the U.S. Public Health Service commissioned Barnard to design a research project to help identify children who could be at-risk for later developmental problems because of their early environments.
Barnard earned her Ph.D. in Ecology of Early Childhood Development from the University of Washington in 1972. During her dissertation, she became interested in how an incubator could help a baby maintain more mature patterns of sleep through simulating rocking and heartbeat. She developed a rocking bed and found that rocking improved infants’ weight gain and motor and sensory functions.
Today, rocking chairs are standard in hospital nurseries and neonatal intensive care units, and both parents and caregivers are encouraged to rock the tiny infants. Barnard said this success was one of her proudest personal contributions to the field of child development.
Barnard continued to promote infant mental health nationally throughout the 1980s, joining the nascent organization the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs, which is now ZERO TO THREE, and serving on an advisory group of the National Institutes of Mental Health.
“Babies everywhere have lost one of their foremost champions,” said Matthew Melmed, executive director of ZERO TO THREE. “Dr. Barnard was committed to putting research into practice to improve the lives of babies. Her fearless determination helped shape public policy and promote the special and sensitive relationships that exist between parents and their babies.”
She served as an associate dean of the UW School of Nursing in the early 1990s before resigning to pursue further research.
In 2001, Barnard established the Center on Infant Mental Health and Development, a collaboration of the School of Nursing and the Center on Human Development and Disability, to support the professional development of infant mental-health practitioners. The center was renamed in her honor in 2012.
“Kathryn Barnard's vision, coupled with her passion for infants and their healthy development, led her to developing several approaches to their care,” said Nancy Woods, dean emerita of the School of Nursing and a close colleague of Barnard’s.
“Her compassion for mothers of infants at risk led her to develop programs that supported women who had multiple risk factors for poor pregnancy outcomes and parenting – for example, drug use, poverty, mental health problems, social isolation – through nurse home visitation throughout their pregnancy and first year of life,” Woods said.
Barnard’s research provided the foundation for Nursing Child Assessment Satellite Training (NCAST), programs to teach professionals, parents and other caregivers the skills to provide nurturing environments for young children. In doing so she broke ground in translating research into tools that infant mental-health professionals could use in their work with families.
With NCAST, Barnard was decades ahead of what is now referred to as distance learning.
The program’s first offering was a series of trainings based on the Parent Child Interaction Feeding and Teaching Scales (PCI). These scales continue to be the standard for measuring parent-child interaction in the United States. When they were developed, the PCI scales were the first clinical research level parent-child interaction assessment tools.
“Dr. Barnard used early satellite communications technology (Telstar era) to project training about infant development and parenting around the U.S. and the globe, teaching thousands of nurses,” Woods said.
Since its inception, PCI has been employed in almost 100 published research studies. There are more than 800 NCAST certified instructors, representing almost every state in the United States and several nations, and these certified instructors have, in turn, trained more than 20,000 healthcare workers in the PCI Scales.
Details are pending regarding a memorial service. In lieu of flowers, Dr. Barnard requested that gifts be made to the Kathryn E. Barnard Endorsement Fund at the Washington Association of Infant Mental Health. Visit wa-aimh.org for more information.
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