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!
- 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.
- In 1800s New Zealand, breastfeeding was the norm, but by the 1960s, bottle feeding had become widespread.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- ”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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”