University of Auckland: Connection to te ao Māori supports breastfeeding

New research looking at what supports exclusive breastfeeding in wāhine Māori has found that mothers with greater connections with te ao Māori are more likely to exclusively breastfeed their babies for the recommended six months.

The research, recently published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, drew on information from over a thousand wāhine Māori participating in Growing Up in New Zealand, Aotearoa’s largest study of child development.

Co-author of the University of Auckland study, Dr Catherine Gilchrist says the findings are valuable and can inform interventions to protect, promote and support Māori women to exclusively breastfeed their babies.

Dr Gilchrist said, “nearly all wāhine Māori (96%) start breastfeeding. Exclusive breastfeeding to six months old is beneficial for both pēpi and wāhine Māori and 12 percent of wāhine Māori in the study achieved this.”

She said the study identified several factors that influence the likelihood of ongoing exclusive breastfeeding for wāhine Māori.

The research showed that connection to te ao Māori, knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding recommendations, how mothers felt about returning to work, and incidence of maternal depression during pregnancy were all factors that influenced exclusive breastfeeding duration.

Dr Denise Bennett, a paediatrician and co-author of the study, said that the study contributes to the body of evidence demonstrating the impact of colonisation on hauora Māori, and how te ao
Māori offers specific benefits for pēpi and wāhine Māori.

“Colonisation has resulted in the loss of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), including breastfeeding tikanga,” said Dr Bennett.

The research also showed that wāhine Māori who felt that returning to work would limit breastfeeding were less likely to carry on exclusively breastfeeding until six months.

Dr Gilchrest said, “paid parental leave is currently six months, but this may only cover up to about five and half months of baby’s life and not all women have access to paid leave. It’s really important that exclusive breastfeeding to six months is supported because it’s well known that it’s beneficial for both babies and their mothers.”

Dr Bennett said the study also found that maternal depression during pregnancy impacts exclusive breastfeeding longevity.

“I would like to see targeted resources aimed at early recognition and support of these wāhine Māori experiencing depression during pregnancy,” she said.

“Support for wāhine Māori breastfeeding needs to come from all of society, including government, employers, communities, whānau and wāhine Māori. Actions we take now will impact the hauora of wāhine Māori and pēpi in generations to come,” said Dr Bennett.