Mātauranga Māori in pregnancy and birth

Kirsty Saxon (Multiples New Zealand) talks to our multiple mamas about the resurgence of mātauranga Māori in pregnancy and birth.

The word whānau means both to give birth and family, and hapū means both pregnant and clan, illustrating the significance of pregnancy and childbirth to Māori. The whakataukī (proverb) ‘Mate i te tamaiti he aurukōwhao; mate i te wahine he takerehāia’ (the death of a child may be overcome, but the death of a woman is a calamity) shows the importance of producing children. When a family line was in danger of disappearing through lack of children it was called a whare ngaro (lost house).

Amy Black (Multiples Tauranga) is one of an increasing number of multiple mothers who are using mātauranga Māori practices with their babies.  Mum to almost two  year old girls, Bethany and Millie, Amy was gifted wahakura by her iwi, Ngāi Tahu.  Ngāi Tahu gift wahakura to all new babies registered with the iwi.  Amy saying, “We were so grateful to receive them and they were exceptionally handy to have so we could take their beds with us wherever we went. I love how flax is a natural product for my babies to sleep in and they smelt really good too… and best of all we have them as a gorgeous keepsake to keep in the family for the future!”

A wahakura is a woven sleeping bassinet for a baby up to six months of age, based on a traditional design, which has been revived for modern use by Māori doctor David Tipene-Leach. A wahakura is made using the traditional art of raranga (weaving). Māori parents can maintain the cultural tradition of keeping their babies with them in bed, but provide a protected space for a baby. Sleeping in the same bed as young babies puts them at greater risk of SUDI (Sudden Unexplained Death of an Infant).   It also promotes breast-feeding and bonding with baby.

Another mātauranga practise Amy has embraced, is burying her babies placentas.  The word for the placenta, ‘whenua’, is also the word for land. The placenta is the organ that nourishes and protects your baby in the uterus and is considered sacred by many.  The umbilical cord close to a baby’s body is the pito. The whenua was taken after birth and buried on ancestral whenua, which linked the baby with their tribal land. It is now acknowledged that the placenta is considered precious by many, and is to be respected. Traditional Māori practice is to bury the placenta and return it to the land. This is because the earth mother, Papatūānuku, birthed all living things and the land is her placenta or whenua. When we bury the whenua we return it to its place of birth. The Māori of New Zealand are Tangata Whenua, people of the land and so the word whenua means placenta, but also land.  Amy’s mother buried her whenua under fruit and nut trees at her home.  “Whatungarongaro te tangata toitū te whenua” – As man disappears from sight, the land remains. — Māori proverb.

Amy Walsh, Multiples Hamilton, is pregnant with her twins and has purchased muka ties for their umbilical cords.   “I went to the Hapū Wānanga Antenatal class and Kelly who runs it sells the muka ties. I had already heard from several people about them. I was instantly interested as I never liked the plastic clips with my older children, but wasn’t aware back then of any other options.”

Muka, a flax fibre with anti-bacterial properties has been used by Māori families for centuries to tie the umbilical cord, instead of medical clamps.  Mirielle de Ridder, from Kerikeri, is making pure cotton cord ties.  “Fifteen years ago we moved to the South Island and saw the beauty of pounamu, and our connection was instant. Thus our journey began with the sacred kōhatu.  We connect, listen and learn with every stone, and follow the path she takes us on.  To be able to help connect baby and their journey earthside to Aotearoa by using pounamu to create cord ties and pito cutters, we believe we are truly blessed.”  de Ridder’s pito cutters are specially crafted with a knife edge blade for cutting the umbilical cord, and are a great natural alternative. After the pito has been used they can be then sent back to have the knife edge taken off and fashioned into a wearable toki to be treasured for generations.  They are crafted from pounamu which is the stone of good luck and love.

Other Matauranga Māori practises which continue to be used are mirimiri (massage), karakia (prayer), and waiata (song) during pregnancy and birth, and beyond.

Whakawhanau pēpi

Other Matauranga Māori practises which continue to be used are mirimiri (massage), karakia (prayer), and waiata (song) during pregnancy and birth, and beyond.

Maakarita Paku  is a Consumer Reviewer for the New Zealand College of Midwives.  She has seen a rise in Māori whanau implementing Mātauranga Māori into the birth of their babies, she propses that this increase is linked to the Kohanga Reo movement. She says there is a generation of Kohanga Reo kids who are now parents, and many of them have been exposed to mātauranga Māori and traditional birthing practices.