New Zealand: Plunkets Support Mothers for Decades

Perinatal care that is comprehensive, competent and accessible helps to launch children and families on a healthy trajectory. Which professionals provide such care and education vary from country to country, just as the quality of the services rendered can vary. As Jim and I have traveled and taught in the Asia Pacific region this year, we have met many talented and dedicated individuals who care for babies and young families. This has been a source of great joy and inspiration for us.

In New Zealand I have the opportunity to learn about an organization that does this kind of work very effectively, on a national scale. The Royal New Zealand Plunket Society (originally known as the Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children) has made a priority of serving its country’s children and young parents for more than a century.

The first Plunket nurse, Joanna MacKinnon, was trained by the Society’s founder, Dr. Truby King (photo), during the first decade of the twentieth century. Through public speaking and home visiting MacKinnon shared evidence-based information on raising healthy children.

King’s initial focus was to provide safe and effective cow’s milk-based formula for at-risk babies, but he quickly, and vocally, came to advocate for the superior advantages of breastfeeding. With the financial assistance of Lady Plunket (photo), the wife of then-New Zealand Governor William Plunket (and the mother of eight children of her own), the new movement was granted the means to grow—and how it did!

Throughout the twentieth century, Plunket Rooms, Centres and Clinics, as well as Karitane Hospitals, were established in all the cities and many of the hamlets of both the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Mobile clinics, intrepid home visitors, and “flying nurse services” reached Kiwis in more isolated places. Volunteers raised money and built facilities to support the Plunket cause. It was largely a women’s movement—and a remarkably successful one.

In the twenty-first century, Plunket professionals continue to provide services that are effective, free, and available to every family in New Zealand. Funding comes from corporate sponsors and community donors as well as the Ministry of Health. A 24/7 phone support line and a car seat program are recent innovations. Related organizations, such as Bernardos and Karitane, offer complementary (and sometimes overlapping) services. Plunket nurses see 90% of New Zealand’s newborns every year, and even more families than that access other free services the Society provide.

Next week I will have a chance to learn more about the Plunket Society as I share HUG Your Baby ideas at their national headquarters in Wellington.