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For several generations the Mothers’ and Babies’ Health Association (MBHA) and its successors have been a highly respected source of support and reassurance to South Australian families with young children. The MBHA developed from the Adelaide School for Mothers, which was established in 1909 by Dr Helen Mayo and Miss Harriet Stirling. Like similar bodies formed elsewhere then, its aim was to reduce infant mortality by providing expert advice to mothers. Such a politically non-contentious strategy, which deflected attention away from evidence that health and illness were largely socially and economically determined, was attractive to governments, health professionals and mothers, and allowed the MBHA to flourish, readily attracting voluntary support and government funding. As its services proliferated, infant mortality rates fell and the MBHA regularly claimed, though it could never demonstrate, a simple, causal connection between the two developments.

While some of its program, including the mothercraft hospital and training school Torrens House, was run from its Adelaide headquarters on South Terrace, for most clients the MBHA was the local baby health centre where MBHA sisters monitored babies’ growth and dispensed advice on feeding and management routines. In the organisation’s heyday, MBHA staff were in contact with the overwhelming majority of young families in rural areas as well as suburban Adelaide and from the 1930s to the 1950s three Baby Health Trains took clinics to small, isolated communities.

By the 1960s the MBHA philosophy and practice were being challenged by the needs of a more complex community, and parents were in time recognised as active participants in its programs rather than passive recipients of standard advice. Name changes to Child, Adolescent and Family Health Services (1980), Child and Youth Health (1995) and Child and Family Health Service (2011) within the Women’s and Children’s Health Network reflected two important developments: the incorporation of a formerly private venture into the South Australian Government’s health services system, and the growth of broader and more sophisticated understandings of the determinants of infant well-being.

By Judith Raftery

 Visiting Senior Lecturer, Department of Public Health, School of Population Health, University of Adelaide

This is a revised version of an entry first published in The Wakefield Companion to South Australian History, edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Revised by the author, uploaded 10 December 2013.

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Baby Evangeline Gabriel being being weighed by a nurse 1908
Baby Health Centre railway carriage, 1932
Mothers and Babies’ Health Association, South Terrace,1953
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