Story: Pregnancy, birth and baby care

Page 7. Postnatal and baby care

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Care after birth

Until hospital births became the norm in the 1930s, midwives and nurses were often paid to stay in the home after the birth. Some did household chores and cared for any other children. Poorer women were visited by neighbourhood ‘handywomen’.

In hospitals women stayed for up to two weeks after giving birth. They were taught how to breastfeed and bathe babies. Some enjoyed the rest but others resented being confined to bed – in the 1950s women were not permitted to go to the toilet for several days and had to use bed pans.

Contemporary handywomen

In the 21st century some new parents paid women called doulas to look after the mother. ‘Doula’ is derived from a Greek word meaning caregiver. In the New Zealand context it meant an experienced woman who came into the home and provided support and practical assistance before, during and after the birth. Services included antenatal education, breastfeeding advice and light housework.

Babies were kept in hospital ostensibly to reduce the risk of infections. But by the 1950s the Department of Health acknowledged this practice actually helped spread infections. Parents Centre lobbied for closer contact between mothers and babies so bonding could occur. Some hospitals allowed mothers and babies to ‘room in’ and put babies’ cribs next to their mothers' beds. Others kept separate nurseries until the 1970s.

The closure of small maternity hospitals from the 1970s coincided with a trend towards shorter stays. By the 1980s many women wanted to leave quickly if home visits and support groups were available.

In the early 21st century some people criticised early-discharge policies. There were not enough beds or staff at some hospitals, and some women were pressured to leave before they were ready.

Vouchers for mothers

In 2007 the Capital and Coast District Health Board (Wellington) offered new mothers supermarket vouchers if they left hospital soon after giving birth. Some health groups described this as bribery and the offer was quickly withdrawn. In the 1990s hospitals in Waikato and Auckland had similar schemes, but they did not result in women leaving hospital any sooner.


The Plunket Society was founded by Frederic Truby King in 1907 to support mothers and babies. Plunket nurses provided mothers with advice and monitored babies’ growth rates and feeding habits. Karitane hospitals (named after the location of King’s first hospital) were run from 1907 to 1980 to care for premature and weak babies. Karitane nurses were trained in baby care but were not registered nurses.

Plunket’s services were valued, especially if women did not have family nearby or lived in isolated rural districts. Many women did volunteer work for their local branch, which gave them opportunities for social contact.

From the 1950s some challenged Plunket’s approach to baby care, which prescribed rigid feeding and sleeping routines. Plunket slowly adapted its services in response to more flexible approaches to baby and child care.

Other organisations and groups

Parents Centre is a support organisation for mothers and fathers. In the 2010s there were around 50 branches throughout New Zealand. From 1964 the La Leche League provided women with information about and support for breastfeeding. Stillbirth and Newborn Death Support (SANDS) was founded in 1986.

Many mothers met informally in their own homes. In the 21st century internet-based groups and discussion forums were a new form of support.

Breast- and bottle-feeding

Health authorities and organisations like Plunket actively promoted breast milk as the best first food for babies. Despite this, breastfeeding declined over the 20th century. In 1939, 91.5% of mothers were breastfeeding when they were first visited by a Plunket nurse. The proportion had dropped to 74.4% by 1952 and under 50% by the late 1960s.

Reasons for the decrease included negative experiences of breastfeeding in hospitals with rigid routines. Some women found it physically difficult. Breastfeeding became unfashionable at times and was socially unacceptable in public places.

Sweet tooth

In Baby, a book published by the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly in 1960, a doctor provided this advice: ‘Most babies do very nicely on practically any form of cow’s milk so long as some water and sugar are added for the first few months. Two of milk to one of water and a level teaspoon of sugar to every added ounce of water is a good basis to start from.’1

The numbers breastfeeding increased from the early 1970s as groups like the La Leche League promoted the practice. Rates were between 80% and 90% throughout the 1980s and into the mid-1990s. In the 2010s, more than 80% of mothers were breastfeeding at six weeks, though rates then dropped significantly. Māori, Pacific and Asian women had lower rates than Pākehā women.

If women did not breastfeed, infant formula was the main substitute. Plunket also provided information on ‘humanised milk’ (modified cow’s milk) and sold formula through the Karitane Products Society.

Cow’s milk sweetened with sugar or condensed milk was common until the 1970s. Fruit juice was given to babies well into the 20th century. In the early 21st century an exclusive diet of either breast milk or formula was recommended until babies reached four to six months.

Post-natal depression

For a long time post-natal depression (PND) was kept quiet because of the social stigma associated with mental illness. From the early 1980s it was more openly discussed.

  1. Baby. Auckland: New Zealand Newspapers, 1960, p. 36. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Pregnancy, birth and baby care - Postnatal and baby care', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 24 Oct 2018