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Babies for the Nation

The Medicalization of Motherhood in Quebec, 1910-1970

Denyse Baillargeon; W. Donald Wilson, translator

Studies in Childhood and Family in Canada Series

Paper 342 pp.

ISBN13: 978-1-55458-058-3

Release Date: July 2009

Online discount: 25%

$42.99  $32.24


eBook availability

Winner of the Clio-Québec Prize, the Lionel-Groulx–Fondation-Yves-Saint-Germain Prize, and the Jean-Charles-Falardeau Prize in the original French edition

Described by some as a “necropolis for babies,” the province of Quebec in the early twentieth century recorded infant mortality rates, particularly among French-speaking Catholics, that were among the highest in the Western world. This “bleeding of the nation” gave birth to a vast movement for child welfare that paved the way for a medicalization of childbearing.

In Babies for the Nation, basing her analysis on extensive documentary research and more than fifty interviews with mothers, Denyse Baillargeon sets out to understand how doctors were able to convince women to consult them, and why mothers chose to follow their advice. Her analysis considers the medical discourse of the time, the development of free services made available to mothers between 1910 and 1970, and how mothers used these services.

Showing the variety of social actors involved in this process (doctors, nurses, women’s groups, members of the clergy, private enterprise, the state, and the mothers themselves), this study delineates the alliances and the conflicts that arose between them in a complex phenomenon that profoundly changed the nature of childbearing in Quebec.

Un Québec en mal d’enfants: La médicalisation de la maternité 1910—1970 was awarded the Clio-Québec Prize, the Lionel Groulx-Yves-Saint-Germain Prize, and the Jean-Charles-Falardeau Prize. This translation by W. Donald Wilson brings this important book to a new readership.

Denyse Baillargeon is a professor in the History Department at the Université de Montréal.

Donald Wilson joined the faculty of the University of Waterloo in 1970, where he remained until his retirement. A former chair of the Department of French Studies at UW, he is the translator of Babies for the Nation: The Medicalization of Motherhood in Quebec, 1910–1970, by Denyse Baillargeon (WLU Press, 2009) and, with Paul G. Socken, of Aaron: A Novel, by Yves Thériault (WLU Press, 2007).


“Originally published in 2004, Denyse Baillargeon’s Un Québec en mal d’enfants has finally been translated for an English-speaking audience. Babies for the Nation offers a riveting study of the medicalisation of maternity and maternal discourses in Quebec over the course of the twentieth century, bringing attention to an issue largely elided within existing studies of Quebec.... [A]n indispensable resource for social historians interested in the growth of maternal and medical ideologies in French-Canada.... Similarly, Baillargeon’s focus on the political movements and welfare groups that arose to help structure and safeguard new procedures and discourses also make this an interesting read for political historians concerned with the rise of state intervention in the home. Tamara Sonn argues on the study’s jacket that: ‘This dense and scholarly work...will probably remain a definitive work on the topic’, and this reviewer would have to strongly agree.”

— Sarah Galletly, University of Strathclyde, British Journal of Canadian Studies

Babies for the Nation is a book of extraordinary historical detail and fine analytic insight. Through remarkably thorough historical research, Denyse Baillargeon has effectively opened to newcomers the empirical field of the history of maternity in Quebec. English-speaking Canadian historians are lucky to have the translation available. The writing in the book is smooth and elegant, and attribute for which we owe the translator, W. Donald Wilson, as much as we owe the original author. The book demonstrates Baillargeon’s mastery not only of the field and its analysis but also of the writer’s craft.”

— Robyn Braun, University of Alberta, H-Canada

“Originally published in 2004, Denyse Baillargeon’s Un Quèbec en mal d’enfants has been carefully translated by D. Donald Wilson and republished as Babies for the Nation. It is a welcome translation and will ensure that the work of Baillargeon gets a wider reading.... The book is full of rich themes. While much of the literature on women and the medicalization of birth and motherhood addresses the issue of control by physicians, Baillargeon is more interested in how the discourses of medicalization created self-regulation within the women themselves.... [The book’s] appendices are quite wonderful—among them a Timeline of Infant Feeeding in Canada, a listing of the various editions of The Canadian Mother’s Book with author/editor and distribution figures, a listing of National Surveys of Breastfeeding Practices and summaries of each of them, and the Evolution of Canadian Infant Feeding Guidelines (1923—2004). Each tells us much about the infant feeding habits of women and the advice given to them and how both changed over time.”

— Wendy Mitchinson, University of Waterloo, Scientia Canadensis: Canadian Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Praise for Un Québec en mal d’enfants

“An indispensable work for scholars and students at the graduate level.... This dense and scholarly work, based on exhaustive original research, will probably remain the definitive work on the topic. It makes a contribution not only to the history of health and of women, but also to Quebec political history.”

Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française

“This is an academically ambitious book, broad in scope and thoroughly researched [yet] it manages to be quite readable.... [I]s it relevant to a contemporary readership in Canada where infant mortality is much decreased, and the notion of a dictatorial and male-dominated medical systen is increasingly archaic? The answer is yes: Baillargeon’s book depicts the conflicts among the groups involved in public health and politics that is likely no different today.”

— Paul Moorehead MD, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Canadian Medical Association Journal

“[A] passionate work of social history.... It also has particular relevance at a time when many women are turning to midwives and choosing to have their babies at home—a modern-day challenge to the now hegemonic status of medicalized childbirth.”

— Kate Forrest, Montreal Review of Books

“In 1927, Canadian Child Welfare News reported that ‘Canada enjoys the apparently unenviable distinction of attaining the highest infant mortality rate in recent years.’ The journal placed the blame for this shameful achievement entirely on the province of Quebec, whose startlingly high rate of infant deaths had been added to the national registry of births and deaths for the first time, raising the national average of infant mortality from 78.6 to 101.9 per one thousand live births (p. 17). Denyse Baillargeon’s absorbing Babies for the Nation: The Medicalization of Motherhood in Quebec, 1910–1970 uses extensive archival research and oral history to interrogate the reasons for Quebec’s notorious ranking and how this changed the way pregnancy, childcare, and motherhood were conceptualized. Building on previous work in the history of health, children, and women by Wendy Mitchson, Cynthia Comacchio, and Andrée Lévesque, Babies for the Nation offers a complex analysis of the constellation of stakeholders—physicians and nurses, the government, insurance agents, women’s groups, and mothers—dedicated to solving Quebec’s infant mortality crisis for the sake of children and their families and, by proxy, for improving the province’s reputation as a vital nation.... What is really remarkable about Baillargeon’s study is that she does not only pay attention to the prescriptive side of how the ‘experts’ thought mothers should act. Through extensive oral history, she shows how women digested and adapted the medical advice and services offered to them and contributed in their own ways to raising health children.... Babies for the Nation is a multifaceted analysis of the ways Quebec confronted infant mortality throughout the twentieth century. Baillargeon’s study would appeal to anyone interested in understanding the role child welfare plays in characterizing not only the role and responsibility of women, but also the destiny of an entire province.”

— Tarah Brookfield, Wilfrid Laurier University, Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth

Babies for the Nation

Table of Contents

Related interest

Canadian history

Child studies





Women's studies

By the same author

Making Do: Women, Family and Home in Montreal during the Great Depression, Denyse Baillargeon; Yvonne Klein, translator

A Brief History of Women in Quebec, Denyse Baillargeon; W. Donald Wilson, translator

Aaron, Yves Theriault; W. Donald Wilson and Paul G. Socken, translators