Did you know?

Here are some fascinating snapshots of breastfeeding in New Zealand in the past. They are reflections of the thinking of the time, and do not necessarily reflect what we know about breastfeeding today. We’ll add to these over the coming weeks and months, so keep coming back for more and eventually there will be a complete picture of the history of breastfeeding in New Zealand!

  1. In early Maori society the whole community took responsibility for the care of pregnant and breastfeeding women, and ensured they were able to concentrate solely on the wellbeing of their babies. A number of women in a hapu might feed a number of babies, especially if the birth mother was unable to.
  2. In 1800s New Zealand, breastfeeding was the norm, but by the 1960s, bottle feeding had become widespread.
  3. In the late 19th Century, in Pakeha society, babies who were not breastfed were fed cow’s milk diluted with water and sweetened with sugar. Diluted cream, buttermilk, barley water and oatmeal soaked in water were also common substitutes.
  4. An 1861 publication advised mothers to breastfeed their babies immediately after birth, saying “By this means the infant gets the benefit of the early milk, which is the most natural aperients it can have.” It also advised women to breastfeed for not less than nine or more than 12 months “for it may be taken as an invariable rule that when nature puts teeth into a child’s mouth, they are meant for use.”
  5. By the mid-1880s, following overseas trends, breastfeeding began to become unfashionable, especially among urban, middle class women, who found it time consuming and inconvenient to the lifestyles they wanted to have. Manufacturers of new commercial infant formula encourage women to switch to bottle-feeding.
  6. In Maori society in the early 1900s, two pieces of legislation are thought to have affected breastfeeding. The Infants Act 1908 restricted retaining an infant in care for the purpose of nursing for more than seven consecutive days unless licensed as a foster-parent. The Native Land Act 1909 put an end to adoption in accordance with native custom. These laws are believed to have directly undermined the practice of whangai-u or wet nursing, and the parenting of infants, including breastfeeding, by other whanau members.
  7. A widely-held belief still persists that a law was passed in 1909 forbidding Māori women to breastfeed, at least in public, but no such law ever existed.
  8. ”It is too often considered unfashionable for a woman to nurse her own children. We must change the fashion. People must honour the mother who feeds her babies in the way nature intends.” – Founder of the Plunket Society, Dr Truby King, early 1900s.
  9. There was a revival of interest in breastfeeding in New Zealand in the early 1900s, partly due to the influence of Dunedin doctor Truby King. Dr King, who was head of a local hospital for the mentally ill, believed insanity was linked to poor infant nutrition. He made it his mission to see that babies, where possible, were raised on breast milk, and later founded the Plunket Society.
  10. The Plunket Society was founded in 1907 in Dunedin by Dr Truby King. His vision was to help the mothers and save the babies that were dying from malnutrition and disease. The wife of the Governor-General, Lady Plunket, lent her support and her name.
  11. Founder of the Plunket Society, Dr Truby King advised women to breastfeed only every four hours. It was later realised that four-hourly feeds worked against breastfeeding as some women weren’t able to get breastfeeding established and keep up their milk supply. The Plunket Society no longer subscribes to rigid feeding routines.
  12. While he was a strong supporter of breastfeeding, Founder of the Plunket Society, Dr Truby King, accepted it wasn’t always possible and, with the help of local milk companies, developed and marketed dried milk products manufactured from cow’s milk.
  13. In 1913, the Health Department asked Dr Truby King, founder of the Plunket Society, to write a book Feeding and Care of Baby, printed 30,000 copies, and gave one to all mothers within a few days of childbirth. In 1916, Dr King wrote The Expectant Mother and Baby’s First Months, which  was given to every applicant for a marriage licence.


Image credit: The painting above was kindly given to the National Breastfeeding Campaign by artist Sonya Veldhuizen. The painting was inspired by the concept of kaitiaki, or guardianship. Sonya says, about the painting:

“I have embodied kaitiaki as the idea of our duty as caretakers of our heritage, our land, our resources, our future and our families. The uncoiling tree fern, koru, represents new life and new beginnings…

Breastfeeding is the best start in this new life that we can give to our tamariki, so I saw it fitting that this piece be used for Aotearoa’s breastfeeding campaign.”


14 thoughts on “Did you know?

  1. I still find that it twists my stomach up to hear that breastfeeding is time consuming and inconvenient, i really do find it amazing that anybody could think that there is any other choice, if you are able then you should, time consuming and inconvenient as it all may be. Your breasts are there for the express reason of feeding your offspring and formula is a poor second to the real deal. I say all of this understanding that i am incredibly fortunate to have been able to feed all three of my children with no problems at all and that this is not the case for everyone. I just mean if you can i think you really should.
    I also really love that whole whanau wet nurse situation. Grouping together and communily looking after the babes is such a great thing, its a shame things arent like that anymore.

  2. It tore me up hugely to put Aroha on formula. So i went one step ahead and i buy her formula from Commonsense Organics. If I can’t express enough and have to formula feed her, she may as well have formula without synthetics!

  3. It’s funny to me that people think bf is time consuming and inconvenient, there is no way I am organised enough to cope with boiling water, sterilising bottles, packing bottles and formula every time you go out, or even making sure we always had enough powder in the cupboard so as to never run out… To me bf is the easy option!

    BTW same goes for co-sleeping 😉

  4. Pingback: Just-for-fun quiz. How well did you score? |

    • Hi Rachel, good question – I have added an image credit above which tells you a little more about the artist and the painting! Thanks, Alex

  5. My husband and I agree that breastfeeding is the most easiest option in the world! Yea its takes a hard go in the beginning but once you got the hang of it its easy sailing. As my hubby commented one night after looking after bubs with formula, as I got some much needed sleep, that it was such a hassle listening to our son scream while he got the water ready then put that and the formula into the bottle and made sure it was mixed right and the right temp. Our poor lil guy got himself so worked up that the bottle feed became such a mess as he hiccuped through it, my hubby said it was the hardest thing ever and hes glad I breastfeed because popping a tit out and getting baby on quickly means much less stress and the feed is over and done with much faster. Which is what you need at night!

  6. for most mothers, nursing once every 4 hours would be the beginning of down regulation of her milk supply, and she would be forced to either breastfeed more frequently or use artificial supplements very soon afterward due to a slow gaining baby. Strange coincidence that the same person who recommends the the scheduling, also ends up making a consumer product that takes the place of mother’s milk. Not sure that part is ethical.

    • Advising mothers to space out breastfeeds (ie not follow baby cues), and to leave babies to cry tends to result in an increased need for infant formula top ups. No coincidence then that Truby King’s Karitane Product Society developed and sold infant formula around NZ and for export. The ethics of health care professionals peddling infant formula and commercial baby food is very questionable indeed.

  7. My MIL was a Karitane nurse and through her education they were told mothers should BF 4 hourly. After i got home from the hospital and they instructed feed on demand She would insist that i was over feeding my son and should change to a 4 hour schedule. Later after i just ignored her advice she tried to convince me so that it was convenient for me so that i would have time to do stuff like clean house. I make Just enough when im in a good mood and im well, and don’t really make enough when im stressed or unwell so why would i go for convenience when in the end i would have to supplement. Yes i find breastfeeding very time consuming but im okay with that cause its valuable time with my son. Im the kinda person that if i want something done right i will do it myself and it was the hardest thing to let go to make sure breastfeeding was done right.

  8. Pingback: Which Formula? « Tangerine and Cinnamon

  9. hi there, interesting read. What are your sources to back up your statement that tis a myth that the law suppressed maori women to breastfeed. Apologies if you have already provided references/ sources and I have failled to recognise them. Kindly, Tracey Manihera.

    • Kia ora Tracey, Marama here. I am one of the Breastfeeding NZ admins for the Facebook page. Thanks for your query. I didn’t post the original blog so I have no sources at all around any of the article. Please let us know if there are sources for anything to the contrary as well that you know of we would be happy to review our statement. But I also agree that it would be good to provide a reference for the information we offer up. Happy to look further into this, thanks once again. (Marama)

  10. Committing to reetablishing breastfeeding within family as the way, to break a bottle feeding to free you up to do your thing mentality, as a young mother in the late 1970’s,80’s and 90’s had so many benefits for our children and ourselves as parents I don’t even know where to start. Now, our own daughters are having babies and it is not even in their thoughts that there is another option. Demand breastfed, contented, fat, bright, active babies who are constantly handled by their mothers, dads, uncles, aunts, nans and koro is the norm.

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