Looking back, moving forwards
Reflecting on the incredible history of the Australian Breastfeeding Association.
When Mary Paton first became a mother in 1962 there was little written information on breastfeeding for mothers or health professionals.
That all changed when Mary founded the Nursing Mothers’ Association (NMA) in Melbourne in 1964.
Breastfeeding in the 1960s
Around the time when Mary gave birth to her first baby, breastfeeding support in Australia looked very different to how it is today.
Breastfeeds in hospital were strictly timed. Babies were kept in the nursery rather than rooming in with their mothers. They were brought to the mother for feeds at set times, whether they were awake or not. Access to the breast was restricted to just a few minutes at first, slowly working up to 10 minutes each side. Test-weighing after breastfeeds was common and newborns were often topped up with infant formula. Babies were kept in the nursery and fed infant formula through the night.
Such strict hospital practices made it hard to establish, let alone maintain, breastfeeding.
Mary's breastfeeding journey
In this climate of control, with conflicting and often poor advice, Mary struggled to breastfeed. At 4½ months, she finally put her baby on formula.
Mary knew that it shouldn’t have to be like that. There had to be a better way.
An idea was born
Mary saw a Readers’ Digest article about a breastfeeding support group in the USA, La Leche League. They recommended a book called Nursing Your Baby by Karen Pryor, and Mary was so keen to read it that she imported three copies. Mary and her friends were in awe. The book spoke of breastfeeding as easy and natural, and shared common sense advice.
For the next year, Mary thought about how breastfeeding mothers could support one another and planned how information could be shared. On 13 February 1964, she met with five of her friends to share her vision. Mary and these friends — Jan Barry, Glenise Francis, Pat Paterson, Pauline Pick and Susan Woods — became known as the Founding Mothers.
The Nursing Mother's Association (NMA)
Choosing a name for their venture was a challenge. Censorship rules at the time meant they could not use the word ‘breast’. They settled on Nursing Mothers’ Association (NMA) to represent both breastfeeding and nurturing. The extra ‘A’ (for Australia) was added later, in 1969, as the Association spread across the country.
At first, the NMA grew by word of mouth as members brought along their friends. Slowly, the women gathered information about breastfeeding, sharing the things they had tried that had worked for them. A resource of knowledge and understanding about lactation was created.
Spreading the word
From the very start, the members knew that it was important to establish NMA as a credible source with the medical profession. With the help of medical advisers, NMA gave their first talk to the Victorian Women’s Medical Society in 1964.
Soon after, they talked to 300 Baby Health Centre Sisters in Melbourne. The medical advisers were invaluable. They arranged introductions to hospitals, medical and nursing schools, made mention of the Association in the Medical Journal of Australia and quietly spread the word in government circles.
Built on passion
In the early days there was much to be done and no money to do it, but the members had drive and passion.
Mothers would bake cakes for cake stalls or donate bundles of newspapers and silver milk bottle tops to raise funds through recycling schemes. They sold products to promote NMA and create a stable source of income, independent of external funding bodies. Meh Tai (baby slings) were sewn by members, and the first booklets about breastfeeding were printed in 1969.
A strong foundation
From the very start, the Founding Mothers planned the structure of the Association with care. They knew that a Code of Ethics was vital to give the Association credibility and keep things on track. They could not lose sight of the main aim, which was to encourage and provide support and information to mothers who wanted to breastfeed.
New name... same aims
The NMA changed its name to the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) in May 2001 to more clearly state its purpose: to be recognised as the authority for breastfeeding information and support in Australia.
Mary’s vision has grown from very small beginnings, but the aims of the Association have remained the same.
Today, ABA is an amazing organisation with a diverse and dedicated team of thousands of volunteer Breastfeeding Counsellors and Breastfeeding Educators.
Together, they give countless hours of unpaid time to educate and support breastfeeding women and to promote widely the importance of human milk for human babies.