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Tasmania - Concept

Clean Break Theory (c. 1940 - c. 1970)

c. 1940
c. 1970

Clean break theory is based on the idea that babies' characteristics are formed by their environment rather than their genes. It led to the widespread belief that putting the babies of single mothers up for adoption by white middle class married couples as early as possible benefited their personality development.


Clean break theory gained widespread acceptance following World War Two. The results of Nazi rule in Germany discredited eugenics with its emphasis on hereditary characteristics. Experts increasingly claimed that babies were a 'clean slate' to be shaped by their environment. For instance, Sigmund and Anna Freud believed in adoption with early separation of mother and child on this basis. Similarly, the influential British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, argued for prompt separation of the birth mother and baby so that early experiences did not disrupt personality development. This also helped the adoptive parents to create stronger bonds.

Married couples were considered able to provide more advantages than single mothers. In this way, clean break theory gave credence to a widespread policy of removing the babies of these mothers between about 1940 and 1970. To prevent disruption to the adoptive family, birth mothers were not given any information about the whereabouts of their children.

Related Glossary Terms

  • Adoption

    Clean break theory underpinned adoption practice between about 1940 and 1970.

  • Forced Adoption (c. 1940 - c. 1970)

    Clean break theory supported the widespread practice of forced adoption between about 1940 and 1970.


Online Resources

Sources used to compile this entry: Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices: submissions received by the Committee, Commonwealth of Australia, 2011,

Prepared by: Caroline Evans