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100 years since birth of baby clinics

The bundles arrive as they always have.

Squawking, sleeping, starving or stuffed, mostly loved, often confounding, nothing about babies has changed in the 100 years since the first baby health clinic opened in NSW, but "parenting", as it is now known, has washed through fad after fad.

Irene Macadie watched the mothers who brought their babies to the clinic morph from stay-at-home wives with lots of close family support and exposure to other babies when she started working as a baby nurse in 1955, into working women, unfamiliar with babies and living far from their own parents when she retired in 1994.

They worried always about settling their babies, but the later mothers were more anxious about their babies' development, and the general tiredness that afflicts all mothers had funnelled into a single question: "When will my baby sleep through the night?"

"That's probably the biggest question," Ms Macadie said.

"Over the years it seemed to be an expected thing.


"Mothers who had been very much on top of their careers I think expected to be able to manage the baby like they could manage their staff."

The first baby clinic opened in Alexandria in 1914, followed by Newtown and Darlinghurst and by the 1980s there were about 500 clinics, these days known as Early Childhood Heath Centres.

The early focus was on reducing infant mortality and the nurses provided antenatal care, breastfeeding advice, growth monitoring, development, infant nutrition and teaching "the hygiene of infancy".

In 1914, about one in 10 children died before they turned one. Today, fewer than five children per 1000 die before their first birthday.

During that time, the centres also changed their approach towards parents, from dogmatic to collaborative.

Catherine Bye started working as a baby health nurse in 1973, following in the footsteps of her mother, the director of Metropolitan baby health.

"I could see up to 20 to 40 mothers a day and we were just basically telling them what to do," Ms Bye said.

She told mothers to breastfeed every four hours, and to give their babies boiled water if they were hungry in between.

It was not until she had her own daughter that she realised such advice was not the panacea to all baby problems.

"It was a bit of a shock to me because I'd been preaching all this. My mum used to say, 'Babies don't read the books'."

The nurses these days made suggestions rather than laid down the law, and mothers took a more relaxed approach, Ms Bye said.

"But it's important that they set some boundaries," Ms Bye said.

Nearly 7.4 million babies have been born in NSW over the past 100 years. Health Services are celebrating the centenary of the service with events throughout the state this month.