Kathryn E. Barnard, the University of Washington nursing professor who pioneered early theories of infant mental health, died Saturday in Seattle. She was 77.

Share story

Kathryn E. Barnard, the University of Washington nursing professor who pioneered work on the mental health of infants and changed the way parents interact with their babies, died Saturday at her Seattle home. She was 77.

Dr. Barnard died peacefully after a long illness, school officials said. A celebration of her life will be at a later date; details are pending.

Dr. Barnard was a professor emeritus at the UW, where she arrived in 1963 and worked until her 2006 retirement. She was founder of the school’s center named in her honor: The Barnard Center on Infant Mental Health and Development.

Colleagues described her as an internationally recognized leader who developed evidence-based models of infant mental health, the field that studies the social and emotional development of children during the first five years of life.

“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 lifelong healthy development,” said Azita Emami, dean of the UW School of Nursing.

Dr. Barnard was a 37-year member of the group ZERO TO THREE, which focuses on early infant development.

“Babies everywhere have lost one of their foremost champions,” said Matthew Melmed, executive director of the group.

Through her work, parents know it’s crucial to interact and connect with their children starting at birth and throughout the early years.

In 2002, Dr. Barnard was honored by the Institute of Medicine for a lifetime of achievement with its Gustav O. Leinhard Award. That year, she shared the honors with close friend and colleague Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a retired Harvard Medical School professor and pediatrician whose books helped a generation of parents raise children.

Dr. Barnard was born in 1938 in Omaha, Neb., the only child of a Union Pacific railroad worker and a homemaker. She knew she wanted to be a nurse in the first grade, colleagues said.

She got her first nursing job in Nebraska at age 16 and graduated from the University of Nebraska with a bachelor of science in nursing in 1960. After earning a master’s degree from Boston University, she was recruited to the UW. She earned a doctorate in the ecology of early-childhood development from the UW in 1972.

During her dissertation research, she became interested in the role of simulated rocking and heartbeat on babies’ sleep and development. She developed a rocking bed that improved weight gain and function — and it became a standard in hospital nurseries and neonatal intensive-care units. Her success with this intervention was one of her proudest personal contributions to the field of child development, colleagues said.

In the 1970s, when Dr. Barnard began her research on infants and their parents, there was little appreciation of the connection between early communication and care and child development.

In 1971, the U.S. Public Health Service commissioned Dr. Barnard to design a research project to help identify children who could be at risk because of their early environments. That work was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Dr. Barnard’s research also provided the foundation for the Nursing Child Assessment Satellite Training, or NCAST, which helps professionals and parents provide nurturing environments for young children.

Dr. Barnard was the recipient of many awards and honors during her long career. She was single, with no children, and is survived by distant relatives, school officials said.

In lieu of flowers, Dr. Barnard requested that gifts be directed to the Kathryn E. Barnard Endorsement Fund at the Washington Association of Infant Mental Health.