Parents Centres New Zealand

1952 –

Parents Centres New Zealand

1952 –

Theme: Health

Known as:

  • The Natural Childbirth Association
    1952 – June 1952
  • Wellington Parents Centre
    1952 – 1957
  • Federation of New Zealand Parents Centres
    1957 – 1989
  • Parents Centres New Zealand
    1989 –

This essay written by Sandra Coney was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

Update coming soon!

Parents Centres were founded to provide education and support for new and prospective parents through a community-based nation-wide network of branches, run by committees of women. In 1990 there were 60 centres run by nearly 1000 volunteers, with 9500 members.

The work that led to the setting up of the first Parents Centre began in 1950, when Helen Brew started promoting the idea of 'natural childbirth', and holding informal classes for expectant mothers in her Wellington home. She used the teachings of Dr Grantly Dick-Read, which she had followed for some of her own births.

At that time there was a growing interest in psychologists' theories that drugged births and rigid hospital practices hindered mother-child bonding and had damaging long-term consequences. These concepts were to form the ideological basis of early Parents Centre work, and attracted a loose grouping of like-minded women and men. Most were parents; many also had backgrounds in related fields such as education, psychology, family planning, medicine and midwifery.

The Natural Childbirth Association, formed in Wellington in 1952, aimed to provide natural childbirth information for women, until such time as doctors 'took over the job that was rightfully theirs'. [1] This optimism was short-lived. The fledgling group soon realised that its ideas were perceived as radical and dangerous by conservative elements in the medical and nursing professions. At times, members were even called 'communists', a difficult label to live down in the Cold War years.

The name change to the Wellington Parents Centre on 25 June 1952 was designed to mollify such opponents. The organisation's aims were 'to promote . . . those practices which have beneficial effects upon early parent-child relationships such as education for childbirth, rooming-in, breastfeeding, home confinement and permissive methods of child care'. [2] Helen Brew was elected first president, and advisers were soon appointed from the fields of medicine, education and psychology. They included innovative thinkers such as psychologist Dr Maurice Bevan-Brown (Christchurch) and Professor Harvey Carey of National Women's Hospital (Auckland).

Women and children talking

Women talking together at a session at the Wellington Parents' Centre session at the YWCA. Evening Post, Ref: EP/1957/3960-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Parents Centre ideas received wider circulation from 1954, when the Bulletin of the Parents' Centre began publication under the editorship of founder member Christine Cole (later Cole Catley). [3] The second Parents Centre formed in Palmerston North in April 1954; others followed in Christchurch, Auckland's North Shore, New Plymouth and Hamilton in 1956. In 1957, a Parents' Hospital Committee began working within National Women's Hospital at Professor Carey's invitation, but this arrangement was short-lived. The group changed its name to Parents Centre when it began working at Bethany Hospital, where it inaugurated a new feature in 1960—classes for adoptive parents. At the first national conference, held at Lower Hutt in March 1957, the Federation of New Zealand Parents Centres was formed to provide a strong national voice. The name change to Parents Centres New Zealand came in 1989.

Antenatal education, an innovation in the 1950s, was the major focus, and classes were well attended. In Wellington, the creative movement teacher Gisa Taglicht taught relaxation and breathing preparation for labour, and sympathetic doctors and nurses gave talks about childbirth and child-rearing.

These classes led to clashes with the Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society and the New Zealand branch of the British Medical Association (NZBMA), which believed that a lay organisation should not undertake such work. It claimed that doctors who took part breached professional ethical standards by talking to other doctors' patients. The NZBMA did not give final ethical approval until 1962, and then only on condition that Parents Centres formalised medical oversight of the content of their courses and accepted a national medical directorship whose members would have NZBMA endorsement.

Other practices promoted by Parents Centres also gave rise to protracted campaigns. Securing the right of parents to visit and stay with their hospitalised children, of children to visit their newly confined mothers, and of rooming-in in maternity wards all took years of effort, involving individual battles with each hospital board. [4] Compulsory bed rest, with bedpanning and swabbing, for ten days after birth was finally banished only after a struggle of epic, and sometimes comic, proportions. The Director of Nursing condemned the change, saying that the preferred bidets were used 'by prostitutes'. [5]

Ironically, although Parents Centres' concerns focused on the personal and domestic, the work to establish these rights often took members into the heat of political struggle, and women had to hone skills of advocacy, lobbying and using the media. It was the issue of the right of fathers to attend births that prompted federation secretary Betty Campbell to stand, successfully, for the Wellington Hospital Board in 1965.

In the 1960s, with increasing acceptance of what had once been condemned as radical ideas, the emphasis shifted to leadership training and new teaching techniques in obstetric physiotherapy. The 1960s also brought the first of several films for use with parents, such as Rooming-in and It's a Boy, scripted and produced by Mary Dobbie, then editor of the Bulletin.

By 1964 there were twelve branches, and more were forming. At the twenty-fifth anniversary conference in 1977, there were 30 centres with some 4663 members. Men (including Helen Brew's husband Quentin) were actively involved in the early years, but as time went by, the committees tended to become exclusively female.

Partial government funding through the Department of Education was achieved in the 1980s, but the federation continued to rely on membership fees, modest grants from private philanthropic sources and an innovative scheme initiated by Christchurch stalwart Nancy Sutherland, whereby Parents Centres received royalties from the sale of lambskins for babies' bedding. [6]

Though many hospitals were offering antenatal classes by the 1990s, many parents preferred the more personal Parents Centre classes. Between 1987 and 1990, 55,000 parents, most of them Pākehā, passed through support or education groups.

The late 1980s brought some stock-taking: there were criticisms that the classes did not 'challenge the power relationships that dominate birth', but instead 'espoused the medical model of birth and advocated the routine use of obstetric technology'. [7] A formal training programme for childbirth educators, begun in 1990,  provided a recognised qualification in childbirth education. The aim of this work was true to Parents Centres' fundamental philosophy: 'to bring the woman back to the centre of the health care circle'. [8]

Sandra Coney


[1] Minutes of meeting to discuss forming Natural Childbirth Association, 1951.

[2] Wellington Parents Centre minutes, 25 June 1952. Although home birth continued to have Parents Centre support, home confinement was deleted from the aims of Wellington Parents Centre in 1956 on 'the grounds that it was an unrealistic aim, and likely to provide a focus for yet further medical hostility' (Dobbie, 1990, p. 36).

[3] Renamed Parents Centre, in 1990 it had a circulation of over 9000.

[4] In 1950, many hospitals allowed parents to visit their sick children for only one hour a week. Parents were seen as 'carriers of germs' and 'upsetting to their children'. See Dobbie, 1990, Chapters 7, 23.

[5] Dobbie, 1990, p. 65.

[6] The Nancy Sutherland Lambskin Trust was formed in 1978. Sutherland had promoted the idea of lambskins for babies from 1967 and had persuaded the New Zealand firm of G. L. Bowron & Company to prepare the lambskins. Bowron paid the trust's capital fund a royalty of 1 percent on every lambskin sold.

[7] Sharron Cole, 'Anti-natal Education: Why Childbirth Educators?', Journal of the New Zealand College of Midwives, No. 5, October 1991, pp. 20-22.

[8] Cole, 1991, p. 22.

Unpublished sources

Auckland Parents Centre records, 1958-1992, in possession of Christine Algie, Auckland

Dobbie, Mary, 'Draft History of Parents Centres in New Zealand', ms. Parents Centres collection, Parent and Early Childhood Archive, Centre for Early Childhood, School of Education, University of Waikato, Hamilton

Parents Centres New Zealand records, 1951-1992, Parent and Early Childhood Archive, Centre for Early Childhood, School of Education, University of Waikato, Hamilton

Published sources

Bulletin of the Parents' Centre (later Parents' Centre Bulletin, Parents Centre Bulletin, Parents Centre), 1954-1990

Dobbie, Mary, The Trouble With Women: The Story of Parents Centre New Zealand, Cape Catley Ltd, Whatamongo Bay, 1990

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