Concerned about the fall in the birthrate, evident in Melbourne by the end of the 19th century, social reformers began to campaign for the introduction of measures to decrease infant mortality. The Lady Talbot Milk Institute, established at the instigation of the medical profession in 1908, distributed pure milk and iceboxes in Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond in the hot summer months. Each family paid according to their means, with middle-class families paying full production cost. Some women reformers, led by Dr Isabella Younger-Ross, were doubtful of the scheme's effectiveness and, strengthened by public concern about the loss of life during World War I, began conducting a school for mothers in Richmond in 1917, persuading the council, in the following year, to fund what they chose to call a baby health centre. Other industrial suburbs quickly followed. Nine centres were established in Melbourne by 1919 with the State Government matching council funding. The Victorian Baby Health Centres Association (VBHCA), founded in 1918, brought together the Milk Institute, the Victorian Medical Women's Society, the Australian Health Society and representatives of the new centres. With Dr Vera Scantlebury as its medical officer, the VBHCA campaigned to make the monitoring of babies routine. Hospitals were encouraged to refer babies to centres now staffed by specialist nurses, trained initially by the Association and later at the Royal Women's Hospital.
The VBHCA was not without its rivals. The Society for the Health of Women and Children of Victoria, founded by Dr J.W. Springthorpe and funded by the philanthropic businessman Joseph Tweddle, introduced the New Zealand-based Plunkett System in 1920, establishing its own training hospital in Footscray four years later. Although it only ever controlled a small number of centres, the Society drew prestige from its hospital which offered residential treatment for mothers and babies based on the teachings of Dr Frederick Truby King. His ideas also guided the Truby King League of Victoria, a small organisation founded by Sister Maude Primrose, whose Plunkett nurses visited families who wished to pay for advice.
Appointed to the Victorian Health Department as Director of Infant Welfare in 1926, Scantlebury had to overcome such rivalries in order to extend the system's coverage. The passage of the Notification of Birth Act in 1929 ensured that centres were notified of all births, with nursing sisters visiting all new mothers shortly after their confinement. Moving well beyond their philanthropic origins, centres were established across the metropolitan area. In addition to the routine weighing and measuring, centres were often constructed alongside municipal kindergartens and provided a focus for the delivery of health education, a local point from which to reinforce the messages disseminated by the movement as a whole through demonstrations at the Royal Melbourne Show and at the Melbourne Town Hall during the city's annual Baby Week. They sought to propagate a science of child-rearing, in which mothers were taught to privilege experts over friends or relatives as sources of advice. The opening of the Lady Gowrie Centre in Carlton in 1939 took this role to new heights with the outcomes of its research used to establish norms to be applied across the nation.
The infant welfare system has been criticised for its rigid regimes which often served to diminish new mothers' self-confidence, contributing to a decline in the breastfeeding the movement claimed to encourage. Rates of voluntary attendance, however, would suggest that mothers valued the free access to advice that the centres have offered. The first port of call for the anxious mother, infant welfare sisters provided reassurance and referrals. They also monitored municipal immunisation programs and, during the 1970s, were often the instigators of playgroups and gatherings for new mothers designed to break down the increasing isolation of women at home with young children. Part of the urban fabric, the centres survived largely unchanged until the late 1990s when the State Government compelled local councils to place such services up for tender, and limited the previously open access by instituting a system of appointments. In many areas pharmacists, appreciating the market exposure which such a service could provide, have stepped in to fill the gap, employing trained staff to undertake the basic infant welfare role.