Story: Pregnancy, birth and baby care

Page 8. Baby rituals and conventions

All images & media in this story

Announcing a new baby

Birth notices were a regular column in newspapers from the 19th century through to the 21st century. Notices almost always gave the baby’s surname in capital letters first. Early notices included the father’s name and the sex of the child, but only referred to the mother as ‘wife of Mr …’. In the 1950s babies were not named, though mothers were. In the 21st century babies’ names were always printed and the content was more personal and emotional.

Parents also sent out telegrams, and later cards and emails with a photo of the baby, to family and friends. Some set up websites about their babies or used photo-sharing sites.

Baby names

Choosing a baby’s name was an important decision for parents. Family names were often seen as a way to create connections between generations. Certain names were frequently fashionable. Charlotte, Emily, Jack, Thomas and Joshua were popular both in the 19th century and in the early 21st. Surnames as first names for boys (and to a lesser extent, girls) became more common in the latter period – Hunter and Jackson (boys), Madison and Taylor (girls).

Not 4real

In 2007 new parents Sheena and Pat Wheaton decided to call their son ‘4real’. The Registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriages declined to register the name, but the Wheatons said they would continue to use it. Under the Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Act 1995, the registrar-general can reject names that are considered offensive to a reasonable person, too long, or contain titles or official designations such as ‘Sir’ or ‘Right Honourable’.

Some parents chose unusual names. Birth notices published in the New Zealand Herald in September 2009 included Kona and Zarea (girls) and Cashel (boys), alongside more conventional babies’ names.

Ceremonies and celebrations

Christian baptism (ritual admission to the church) was the most common blessing ceremony performed for babies. The Catholic and Anglican denominations also designated godparents who took an interest in the child’s faith.

Other religious denominations and ethnicities had specific ceremonies. Jewish boy babies underwent ritual circumcision and were later given a Hebrew name. Circumcision was not confined to Jewish families – 95% of New Zealand boys born in the 1940s were circumcised, though the proportion declined rapidly after this.

Hindu babies had their hair cut and cleansed in a river. Chinese people celebrated when the baby reached one month of age.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries many people without religious faith still wished to celebrate their baby’s birth in a formal way. Naming ceremonies, sometimes conducted by civil celebrants, were popular.

Treatment of the placenta was an important ritual for some cultures. Until the late 20th century the placenta was disposed of as waste, particularly if birth took place in hospital. As women gained more control over births and the hospital system paid attention to Māori tikanga – in which burial of the whenua (placenta) in the earth was a critical event – parents could take the placenta home. Most chose to bury it in a meaningful location such as their garden or a public reserve. In 1993 the Christchurch City Council set aside three areas in the Port Hills Reserve for placenta burials.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Pregnancy, birth and baby care - Baby rituals and conventions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2022)

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