Time magazine baby doctor first stirred the water in Lowcountry

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMay 19, 2012 

America dropped its jaws last week at Time magazine's cover shot of a mother breast-feeding a son almost 4 years old.

It's an in-your-face jab at an old and sensitive subject: How to raise a baby.

"Are You Mom Enough?" screams the big red type. "Why attachment parenting drives some mothers to extremes -- and how Dr. Bill Sears became their guru."

On Hilton Head Island, old-timers didn't have to wait to see the magazine cover.

From 1976 to 1981, Sears was the island's primary pediatrician.

Mothers still talk about his passionate care for their babies, even if they did consider Bill and his wife, Marty, a little different.

Deanna Coyne tells about the time Marty was leading a Lamaze birthing class in the Sears' home.

"We're all sitting with our pillows, blankets and things on the floor -- husbands and wives -- when Marty's daughter walked up, took the gum out of her mouth, pulled up her mother's shirt and began nursing," Deanna said.

"I thought, 'Wow, I don't think we'll nurse that long.' "

Hayden

The little girl was Hayden Sears. Friends recall that she was born in her parents' oceanfront home on Dinghy Lane in Palmetto Dunes, with soft music playing and the whole family there.

Hayden was the fourth of seven children born to Bill and Marty Sears, and they would adopt an eighth child.

Time magazine says her dad is "the man who remade motherhood."

He's like the anti-Dr. Spock, encouraging mothers to bond with their babies by breast-feeding them even as toddlers, attending them when they cry, sleeping with them and "wearing" them in slings.

He and Marty, a registered nurse, have written 30 books about it. Their bible is "The Baby Book," which is printed in 18 languages and has sold more than 1.5 million copies since 1992.

Time reports that the doctor's brand of "attachment parenting" bubbled from a 1975 book by Jean Liedloff called "The Continuum Concept." It's about well-behaved babies she saw strapped to indigenous people in the South American jungle.

But much of it was born here on Hilton Head, along with Hayden.

"She vehemently rejected the crib," her parents write in "The Baby Book."

"She could only sleep, though irregularly, next to a warm body in our bed. The crib, which had comfortably housed our first three babies, soon found its way to a garage sale."

A friend says the Searses were introduced to the La Leche League here, which was right up their alley. Marty was well known for nursing anywhere.

Also, their first book, "Creative Parenting," was written here.

Instincts

"The magazine cover is so much more sensational than his message," said islander Karen Cerrati, who leaned on Sears as a young mother. "His message was to be as natural and loving and close as possible. It was mostly follow your instincts. If you think your baby needs you, be there for your baby. I figured, sure, breast-feeding is better than putting a bottle of chemicals in his mouth. He never considered it his way or the highway.

"It worked out well for our children."

Mothers talked less about his philosophies, which still stir controversy, than the fact that Sears would examine their sick children anytime, anywhere -- at his home or even in the parking lot after church. Deanna Coyne was one of two mothers to tell me Sears saved her child's life.

Barb Turner said she almost lost her daughter, Beth, by waiting for Sears to return from a trip rather than take her to the emergency room. He saw the 2-week-old child in his home at 10 p.m. and sprang into action after diagnosing pneumonia.

Islander Guyla Daley said, "I was pretty radical back then, too. I had Guy and two hours later checked myself out of the hospital in Savannah."

She said Marty Sears was there as her coach. They left because the hospital wouldn't let the baby stay with his mother.

At the time, Hilton Head Hospital didn't have an obstetrics unit, which stuck in Bill Sears' craw. He became a lightning rod on an issue that hit home with a lot of islanders who started doing bike-a-thons, a fashion show and a tennis exhibition to raise money for an obstetrics unit. The hospital had plans for a unit, but was in no hurry. Sears insisted it should be a higher priority, and could be done quicker and for less money than management contended.

Bill and Marty Sears pushed for family-oriented birthing rooms that would be cheaper and bring the hospital as close as possible to Hayden's home birth. They never saw it come to life.

Time

Not long after the Searses left town, Genie Ussery and her babies heard someone in the background on television say, "A good shoe is like a good parent. It knows when to be flexible and it knows when to be firm."

"I said, 'That sounds like Dr. Sears.' And it was Dr. Sears," she said. "I knew then that he was going to hit the big time."

He's almost a brand, endorsing and selling products through his "Ask Dr. Sears" website. Three of his sons who were young boys on Hilton Head are now doctors and a fourth is in medical school. Son "Dr. Bob" runs the large family medical practice in Capistrano Beach, Calif., where "Dr. Bill," now 72, sees patients two afternoons a week. "Dr. Jim" is there when he's not on the "The Doctors" television show.

In California, Dr. Bill Sears is pushing healthy eating more than ever as he recovers from cancer.

On Hilton Head, the hospital opened an OB unit in 1983. Last year, 670 babies were born in its "Women's Center," where newborns spend much of their time with their mothers.

The hospital has weekly breast-feeding support group meetings, which are always full. And it has a new "Express Yourself" store for breast-feeding supplies.

"I was sorry to see them go," said Daley, "but they could never have done what they have done if they had stayed here. He was very much ahead of his time for Hilton Head."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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