Karitane-trained nurses in retirement are being encouraged to consider their options as demand for the specialised service they offer skyrockets.

Dr Truby King, babycare expert and author, founded his first training institution and children’s hospital at Karitane, near Dunedin, in the early 1900s and by 1912, there were 60 Karitane homes for babies across the country. Over many decades, scores of dedicated young women trained at New Zealand’s Karitane institutions, spending at least one year learning everything there was to know about newborn and baby care, including feeding, sleep routines, recognising health issues and caring for new mothers, before undertaking four to six months on a practical placement with families in the community.

“They were an invaluable, treasured resource for new parents,” says Miranda Smith, owner of Karitane Nurses and Nannies. “Karitane nurses knew everything there was to know about supporting mums as they navigated their first two years with a baby. They were often placed in rural households, where mums were challenged with raising children and attending to farm duties at the same time, in multiple birth situations, or in any household that would benefit from one-on-one specialised care.”

However, that expert care and knowledge will soon vanish, as New Zealand’s army of Karitane nurses rapidly age.

Training ceased in 1978 and the last Karitane home closed its doors in 1980, nearly 40 years ago. In 2019, there are only 15 known Karitane nurses working in the field – the youngest is 59 and the oldest, 77. Miranda says in the last five years “demand for Karitane nurses has more than quadrupled, while at the same time, the pool has more than halved. I am really worried that this incredible skillset is about to be lost to New Zealand, at a time when maternal mental health and the wellbeing of our children have never been more important.”

Miranda says Karitane Nurses and Nannies, which places Karitane trained nurses and UK trained maternity nannies with families from 4-24 hours a day, runs a wait list for services. Those services range from one-off visits to establish routines, to night nannies relieving exhausted mums who don’t have family or community support to cope. “The demand for night nannies has doubled in the last 18 months, as more women return to work while their baby is still young, whether by choice or by financial necessity. Without a stay at home partner or grandparent support, it can be impossible for these women to function if they’re still feeding through the night. We also work closely with Maternal Mental Health to provide urgent care. Currently, we receive about five requests each day for Karitane nurses that we cannot fulfil. It’s distressing to leave families without the care they are desperate for, and we’d like to see this need addressed.”

Where once there were hundreds, if not thousands, of Karitane nurses working in the community, Miranda estimates there are around 90 Karitane-trained women still alive today. “We are asking two things: one, that any Karitane-trained nurse who would like to work a few hours or a few days each week make contact with us – we have work for you! And secondly, we’d like to implore the government to reintroduce specialised newborn nursing training, and really support families in the future.”

Miranda says she although she and her team have worked hard to reestablish Karitane training in New Zealand, progress has stalled. In 2012, her management team, in consultation with working Karitane nurses, Bodhi Education Consultants and an advisory board consisting of a midwife, paediatrician and education specialists, wrote a course that was approved by NZQA. However changes to the Private Training Establishment (PTE) compliance, approval and accreditation rules in 2013 forced Karitane to deregister their PTE. Attempts to encourage other PTEs to run the course have been unsuccessful. “It’s too expensive to run without government support,” Miranda explains. “We’d like to see the government working with one of the major tertiary providers to deliver this course – which is already written and approved – and help provide newborn nursing and in-home support to meet the ever-growing needs of New Zealand families.”

Karitane Nannies and Nurses is contacted three to four times each week by those keen to train as Karitane nurses, but there is no programme for them. A government supported course would change that, Miranda says.

“Women can no longer stay 14 days in hospital and learn how to care for their babies, or go to a Karitane home to recuperate, rest, and learn about baby care. We used to have a system where our mums were supported and loved, and every detail of baby’s care was shared, learned and practiced. We’d like to see New Zealand parents growing into confident new mums and dads, with the support of well-trained Karitane nurses, and give our babies the best possible start.”

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