Breastfeeding practices in Aotearoa New Zealand have been compromised by various external influences. Colonisation, medicalisation, sexualisation of breasts, and the commercialisation of breast milk substitutes have contributed to environments that have undermined breastfeeding as a normal cultural practice.
Before colonisation, all Māori infants were breastfed (Papakura 1938). In pre-colonised Aotearoa New Zealand, breastfeeding was viewed as an imperative in maintaining and sustaining a child’s development and wellbeing. A well-fed child was reflective of the health status of the whānau, hapū and iwi, and ensured the continuance of future generations. Breastfeeding was so valued that its benefits were recognised through normalised practices such as wet nursing (Lusk et al 2000). If the birth parent was unavailable or could not breastfeed, the baby would be breastfed by another woman in the whānau or hapū (Glover et al 2008). Post-colonisation policies and culture saw the unjust loss of many Māori practices and the introduction of, often detrimental, westernised practices into Māori society. Lower breastfeeding rates are one of the indicators that Māori health and wellbeing has declined as a result of colonisation.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, industrialisation and the growing authority of medical professionals resulted in substantial shifts away from breastfeeding towards commercial products (Minchin 2018) both internationally and within the New Zealand context. In the early decades of the 20th century, childbirth, mother care and baby feeding practices were heavily medicalised. This shift, along with unrestricted marketing of infant feeding products, the sexualisation of breasts in Western societies, and major transformations in gender relations and family dynamics that saw women shift into the paid workforce, contributed to rapidly declining breastfeeding rates (McBride-Henry and Clendon 2010).
The feminist movement of the 1960s and the establishment of community networks, such as the La Leche League and the Parents’ Centre, began to change the way that many women valued and understood their own bodies and knowledge (Else 2019). Despite changing perceptions among women, only 47 percent of babies were breastfed by the end of the 1960s, as opposed to the 87 percent breastfed during the 1920s (McBride-Henry and Clendon 2010).
Rates began to steadily increase in the 1970s and continued to rise with the implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes in 1981 (Reinfelds 2015). However, breastfeeding rates in Aotearoa New Zealand have now plateaued for both Māori and non-Māori.
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McBride-Henry K, Clendon J. 2010. Breastfeeding in New Zealand from colonisation until the year 1980: An historical review. New Zealand College of Midwives Journal. 43: 5–9.
Minchin M. 2018. Infant feeding in history: An outline. (in) Breastfeeding and Breast Milk – from Biochemistry to Impact: A Multidisciplinary Introduction. Germany: Thieme.
Else A. 2019. Women together: A history of women’s organisations in New Zealand / Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o te Motu. Wellington: Ministry for Culture and Heritage.
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Reinfelds M. 2015. Kia Mau, Kia Ū: Supporting the breastfeeding journey of Māori women and their whānau in Taranaki. Taranaki: Massey University.