"Oh!" said the airline stewardess as Dr. T. Berry Brazelton boarded the plane, "Aren't you Dr. Brazelton?"

"Yes," he conceded.

"Well," she said, "I've got an extra seat in first class. Wouldn't you like it?"

"Why, thank you," said the doctor.

"And can I get you a drink?" asked the stewardess. He accepted.

"Well, now," she said as she plunked herself down next to him, "let's talk about toilet training."

Thomas Berry Brazelton, superstar pediatrician, Harvard professor and chief of the child development unit at Boston Children's, is arguably this generation's top baby doc. His seven books for parents and his Lifetime Cable TV show are bringing his knowledge and opinions about babies and, just as important, of families, to more millions than even Dr. Benjamin Spock might have imagined. (His latest book, "What Every Baby Knows," is named for and grew out of the TV show.)

"There is such a hunger out there," says Brazelton, "a hunger on the part of parents who have this need to have someone tell them how to interact with their babies."

Under the smiling charisma that seems to cast a spell on any infant (and parent) within eye contact lies a dedicated researcher who brings at least as much to his field, his professional colleagues and his students as he does to the American family. He is the one, after all, who developed the Brazelton Neonatal Assessment Scale, which can predict with eerie certainty the behavior of the developing child.

Now Brazelton is turning his attention away from the baby as an individual and toward the baby as part of a family unit. He believes it is families -- especially those in poverty -- that are in greatest jeopardy in America today.

He is even stepping gingerly into the political arena to get his message across.

Young couples, he says, are not being supported, "particularly at important times of their lives when they can feel good about themselves -- like when they have a new baby. If we backed them up then, they'd come to the family with a different approach."

"I think right now young parents who have to work or who choose to work -- and I don't know how you separate the two -- really need a lot of backup. And they may even need some guidelines which we sure haven't got: When is it okay to leave a baby {and return to work}? That's probably the most critical thing that hasn't been addressed.

"And what are we doing when you do have to leave a baby? How do we back you up so you don't pull away and just grieve or suffer and then pull yourself out of the situation because it is so painful?

"What kind of day care do we need to pro- vide? What kind of protection? We've only just begun to attack the surface of all that."

Convince yourself that something will fail, and it will.

Brazelton is troubled by the so-called "Rosenthal effect," named for a researcher who took a pair of random groups of first graders a couple of decades ago and arbitrarily told teachers that one group had IQs of 90 and the other had IQs of 110. At the end of the year, the IQs of each group matched the expectation.

More recently, Brazelton said, Robert Rosenthal did the same thing with rats, labeling one cage "smart rats," and the other cage "dumb rats," although there was no difference. At the end of a few months, however, the rats labeled "dumb" couldn't get through a maze to save their lives. Films showed that the attendants plunked the dumb rats into the maze without ceremony, but fondled and coddled the so-called smart ones.

In the same way, Brazelton fears that the very expectation of failure in stressed families will cause the failures unless the medical community, the families themselves and society as a whole can change their approach. He told nearly 1,000 child development specialists at the annual conference of the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs earlier this month that "any caring parent is vulnerable to feeling guilty about a disordered child, and I think the danger now is that we might start labeling mothers as being the reason for their difficult infants -- mothers who are overwhelmed, guilty, nonproductive and for whom the labeling is not going to do anything but become destructive."

The family, says Brazelton, must be seen as a system, and pediatricians need to be trained not just to look "for failures or disease" but for ways to strengthen the family.

In a recent interview and in his presen- tation at the conference, Brazelton emphasized that "blaming the victim" is not the answer.

"If we're really going to back up these young families for the struggle they're into and the search for solutions, we need many things." A few suggestions:

"We need to get on with things like parental leave and sick leave and a more flexible workplace for women and maybe for men who want to stay at home." Brazelton has seen a major increase in numbers of men in his audiences, up to one third in some cases. "It's because they feel empowered to be good at home," he says, "and we need to help them."

"If we don't improve day care, we'll be leaving everybody in the lurch." He approves of a bill sponsored by Sen. Chrisopher Dodd (D-Conn.) that would authorize $2.5 billion for day care programs, but he says, "imagine getting that in this administration."

Brazelton has agreed to go on an "issues tour" with Rep. Patricia Schroeder and Television producer Gary Goldberg to push these issues in the upcoming presidential election. (Goldberg, a former day care operator himself, is the executive producer of the popular situation comedy "Family Ties." His contract with Paramount, where "Family Ties" is filmed, provides that a day care center be operated at the studio.)

Says Brazelton: "We want to show the candidates that these are the issues. Nobody is addressing family issues and the groundswell is there. If we can capture the groundswell, sort of motivate these young parents to ask, sooner or later one of the candidates is bound to pay attention to it, and I think he might have a chance. I think there are enough people out there who are ready to go for somebody that's paying attention to families. They're really hurting."

The trio, with fact sheets and "organizing kits" on family issues, will hit Portsmouth, N.H., Jan. 17, a few weeks before the primary and will do a southern swing before Super Tuesday in March.