NEW YORK — When Dr. John H. Kennell was a hospital pediatrician in the 1950s, newborns were whisked away within minutes of delivery, washed, weighed, blood-tested and plunked into bassinets under the nursery’s fluorescent lights. Their mothers would not be permitted to hold them for 12 hours, sometimes longer.
At University Hospital in Cleveland, where Dr. Kennell was the staff neonatologist, nurses bottle-fed infants every four hours. Mothers could visit, but not for very long.
Dr. Kennell, who died Aug. 27 at 91, liked to say that it was the full-throated complaints by his patients that led him to undertake a research project in the 1960s that helped change the world on which most newborns now open their eyes.
His findings, published in “Maternal-Infant Bonding,” a 1976 book written with Dr. Marshall H. Klaus, a fellow professor of pediatric medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, were considered a prime catalyst for changes in hospital procedures that gave new mothers more private time with their infants, let fathers into the delivery room, and allowed children to visit new siblings in the hospital.
The book’s central claim was that infants and their mothers were hormonally primed in the first hours after birth to form crucial bonds, but that process was not allowed to happen.
“Babies were ready to eat right away after being born, but they didn’t get to their mothers for 12 hours,” Dr. Kennell said. “No one was paying attention to what the baby wanted.”
The doctors’ ideas were well received by developmental psychologists who ascribed to attachment theory, which links the relations newborns have with their first caregivers to their ability to have healthy relationships in adulthood. Relatively quickly, “bonding” became widely adopted.
But “Maternal-Infant Bonding” came under criticism. Fellow researchers said its conclusions were based on too small a case sample and put too much stock in the mother-child interactions in the first hours.
Adoptive parents complained that the theory left them out of the picture. Some feminists saw it as just another way to place child-rearing responsibilities solely on women and to blame the mother if a child grew up troubled.
Dr. Kennell and Klaus acknowledged mistakes and published a revised version of their book in 1982, “Parent-Infant Bonding.” The new edition was less specific about a bonding timetable. The book has been updated several times since. In an introduction to the 1996 edition, pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton defended the authors.
“Despite criticism by some that ‘proof’ of a sensitive period for bonding between parent and baby has not been shown, the authors have continued to fight for a more humane atmosphere in hospitals at the time of delivery,” Brazelton wrote, “including time for early attachment behavior between a new parent and baby. We now realize how important it is to create this atmosphere.”
The sea change in hospital childbirth practices drew on many social currents of the 1960s and 1970s, including the natural childbirth movement, the women’s movement, and an antiauthoritarian climate, said J. Kevin Nugent, director of the Brazelton Institute, a child and family research center at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“Maternal-Infant Bonding,” he said, struck a chord with a broad cross section of women, many of them nurses and hospital administrators who were also mothers and were receptive to the changes it proposed.
“Hospital procedures were geared to the efficient running of hospitals rather than to the needs of mothers and babies,” Nugent added. “John helped change that.”
John Hawks Kennell was born in Reading, Pa., and grew up in Buffalo.
After medical school at the University of Rochester and two years in the Navy, Dr. Kennell did his residency at Harvard Medical School. He was the chief resident at Boston Children’s Hospital before he moved to Cleveland in 1952 to teach at Case Western Reserve and serve in the neonatal unit of the university hospital.
Dr. Kennell, who died in Cleveland, leaves his wife, Margaret; a daughter; two sons; and five grandchildren.