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Pregnancy, birth and baby care

by Kerryn Pollock

Until the 20th century pregnancy was an inevitable part of most women’s lives, as they had limited control over their fertility. Most women gave birth at home, but from the 1930s hospital births became the norm. In the early 21st century the first baby pictures were often ultrasound images of the child in the womb.

Pregnancy and antenatal care

When women had limited control of their fertility, pregnancy was an almost inevitable consequence of regular sexual intercourse. Knowledge and availability of contraception was limited or non-existent until the 20th century. Some couples used condoms in the first half of the 20th century. After the contraceptive pill was legalised in 1961 women could better control their fertility on their own.

At first, women relied on intuition and physical changes to recognise pregnancy. Midwives or doctors provided confirmation through physical examinations and later urine tests. Home pregnancy tests were available from the early 1980s. These gave women an opportunity to absorb the news in private if they wished.

Trust in God

Early Pākehā women settlers with religious faith often placed themselves in God’s hands when it came to pregnancy and childbirth. Writing to her mother about 1856, missionary wife Jane Buttle said: ‘I had begun to think I should have no more [children] but I find I am mistaken. Well we must not murmur. We are in the Lord’s hands, he gives life and he will give strength.’1 Jane died in 1857 – possibly during childbirth.

Single mothers suffered social condemnation. Working women often had to leave jobs or faced dismissal if they became pregnant. Legal protection and unpaid parental leave were provided to mothers in 1980 and to fathers in 1987. Paid parental leave was available from 2002.

Care of pregnant women

Until the early 20th century antenatal (before birth) care was a private affair – women looked after themselves with the aid of family and friends.

Mixed emotions

Confirmation of pregnancy was often greeted with pleasure and sometimes with resignation. In 1845 mother-of-six Jessie Campbell wrote, ‘I regret to tell you that I expect to be confined again in November. I trust this will be the last occasion for I am heartily sick of the business.’2

State antenatal care was first provided in 1918 with the goal of reducing maternal deaths from preventable illnesses. Early clinics were mainly run at public maternity hospitals. Nurses gave women advice, and conducted basic medical examinations like blood pressure checks and urine tests. Diet and exercise were regarded as important.

The Plunket Society, general practitioners (GPs) and independent midwives also provided care. In 1990 midwifery became an autonomous profession in New Zealand, Since the late 20th century most antenatal, birthing and post-birth care has been provided by midwives.


Medical technology increased the monitoring of pregnant women throughout the 20th century. More complex urine and blood tests checked for a range of maternal disorders. X-rays, amniocentesis (checking the fluid around the baby in the womb) and ultrasound scans were used to monitor foetal development and detect abnormalities.

By the late 20th century doctors could do genetic tests on embryos in the womb. If serious abnormalities were detected, parents had to decide whether to continue with the pregnancy. Later, embryos created by fertility treatments could be tested before implantation in the woman’s womb (preimplantation genetic diagnosis – PGD). This testing also became available for parents with a family history of genetic abnormalities.

Inside story

Technology reduced the mystery and risk of childbearing. Parents could see their baby as a foetus and discover its gender. Scans became ‘first photos’ – in the 21st century they were available in digital, email-friendly form. Some commentators claimed that access to technology encouraged a perception that pregnancy and birth were medical events rather than a natural process.

Antenatal education

In the 19th century women usually learned about pregnancy and birth from their mothers and female relations. Later they also read books and attended antenatal classes.

The first specialised books, published in the early 20th century, concentrated on baby care. Maternal care during pregnancy was included from about the 1920s. Early books did not pay much attention to the process of giving birth. By the 1950s they contained this information.

New Zealand’s first antenatal classes were held in 1948. They were run by Parents Centre founder Helen Brew and (separately) Plunket. Men and women attended Parents Centre classes together, while Plunket ran separate groups for men and women until the 1960s. In the early 21st century a wide range of classes existed, run by independent midwives, religious organisations and non-profit community groups.

    • Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, ‘My hand will write what my heart dictates’: the unsettled lives of women in nineteenth century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends. Auckland: Auckland University Press with Bridget Williams Books, 1996, p. 350. Back
    • My hand will write what my heart dictates’, p. 348. Back

Pregnancy attitudes, rituals and clothing

Attitudes to pregnancy

Among 19th-century Pākehā settlers pregnancy was often described as an illness. At the same time it was considered a natural state, because bearing children was seen as a woman’s primary role in life. This attitude persisted through most of the 20th century.

After conception, most men did not play an active role during their partner’s pregnancy. This changed in the second half of the 20th century as men began attending antenatal classes and were present at birth. As social attitudes changed, same-sex parents – co-mothers and co-fathers – became more visible.

Anticipating the baby

Pregnancy was a time to participate in woman-centred rituals. Making clothes or shopping were practical tasks and a way of visualising the baby. Handmade items like knitted garments or quilts were precious because of the time and effort spent making them. Baby showers were parties thrown for a pregnant woman to celebrate the baby and offer gifts.

Clothing and display

Clothing was used to conceal and distract attention from the bulge. The voluminous clothing of the 19th and early 20th centuries made it easy to conceal pregnancy.

Evil invention

A Department of Heath guidebook, The expectant mother, and baby’s first month, written by Frederic Truby King and published in the 1920s, discouraged the wearing of corsets and singled out bras for particular criticism: ‘The modern brassiere, the latest invention of the devil, is as injurious as the corset because it constricts the chest and flattens out the nipples.’1

As dress became more casual, pregnancy became more obvious. This did not mean that women were comfortable displaying their pregnancy. Though books advised loose, light clothing, women often wore heavy coats in public, even in summer. Some shied away from public appearances – in 1957, politician Hilda Ross recalled ‘the old, dark days when we didn’t go out for a walk except in the dark!’2

Visible pregnancy became more acceptable. Clothing was still baggy but did not try to hide the fact. By the 1990s many women proudly displayed their belly behind a light covering of stretchy material, though a 1996 study showed that pregnant women still avoided public places at times.

    • Truby King, The expectant mother, and baby’s first month. Wellington: Dept of Health, 1925, pp. 14–15. Back
    • Quoted in Sue Kedgley, Mum’s the word: the untold story of motherhood in New Zealand. Auckland: Random House, 1996, p. 168. Back

Childbirth, 19th century to 1950s

Childbirth in the 19th century

In the 19th century, Māori women often gave birth in a specially constructed shelter. The tapu or sacredness of birthing mean that it could not be performed in an ordinary dwelling. The umbilical cord was tied with flax fibre or thin stems of makahakaha, a creeper which grows on sandy beaches. The cut end was smeared with oil (titoki). 

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most Pākehā women gave birth at home supported by midwives, family or neighbours. Midwives often stayed in the house for days before and after the birth. Middle-class women sometimes engaged a doctor if they could afford to do so. Women also gave birth in small, private maternity hospitals (usually in urban areas) run by doctors, nurses or midwives.

Most midwives were lay practitioners without formal training. They gained skills by having their own children or working with experienced midwives.

State intervention

Government concerns about high maternal and infant death rates led to the compulsory training and registration of midwives from 1904. New hospitals (known as St Helens hospitals) provided subsidised maternity care and midwifery training. Women could give birth in the hospitals or use their midwives at home. Registered midwives managed most births. Doctors were called if complications arose. Lay midwives gradually disappeared.

Male and female midwives

A midwife is a person trained to assist women during pregnancy and childbirth. The name is derived by adding the Middle English word ‘mid’, meaning ‘with’, to ‘wife’, a woman. Midwives have traditionally been women, though male midwives have existed in small numbers. In 2004 there were nine male nurses with midwifery training and two who were midwives with nursing training in New Zealand, compared to 3,584 female registered nurses with midwifery qualifications and 196 female midwives.

This did not immediately result in better outcomes for women. In 1921 New Zealand had the second highest maternal mortality rate in the Western world. An investigation that year found that puerperal sepsis – blood poisoning caused by bacteria entering the vagina and uterus, often via hands or medical equipment during or after childbirth – was the main cause of maternal death. The infection had been known and feared as ‘childbed fever’ for centuries.

While the Department of Health still recommended that birth should be attended by midwives, doctors thought medical care was essential. New procedures emphasising absolute sterility led to birth becoming a medical event managed by doctors in hospitals.

Deaths from sepsis fell after 1927, thanks to improved hygiene practices rather than changes in the location of births.

Home to hospital

In 1920, 65% of Pākehā women gave birth at home or in one-bed private maternity homes, often run by women. By 1935, 78% gave birth in maternity hospitals where doctors were in charge. From 1939 free maternity care was available at public hospitals. Private hospitals were subsidised and could charge additional fees. The few independent midwives could deliver babies in private homes. Only 17% of Māori women gave birth in hospital in 1939, but 50% did so in 1947.

Medical intervention

Painless childbirth through the use of anaesthetic drugs administered by doctors was an attractive prospect for women, many of whom argued for universal access to pain relief. Some doctors believed that the use of drugs would lead to increased birth rates, because women would not be put off having children.

Along with pain relief, medical interventions like Caesarean section (delivering a child through an incision in the mother’s abdomen) were associated with the rise in hospital births. Caesarean sections increased from 2.2% of births in 1930 to 5.9% in 1935.

Hospital is a foreign country

Giving birth in hospital was particularly challenging for women for which this was not the norm in their homeland. Indian women, for example, were used to giving birth at home surrounded by female relations who conducted important rituals. Immediate, close contact with the baby was expected. This was a world away from New Zealand maternity hospitals, in which women often spent most of their labour alone and were separated from their baby after the birth.

The hospital experience

For many women, giving birth in hospital was a positive event, especially if a trusted family general practitioner (GP) delivered the baby. For others it was a frightening and sometimes humiliating experience. Because of strict hygiene requirements, women were stripped and washed on arrival. Pubic areas were shaved and enemas administered to prevent contamination from bowel movements.

Women laboured in beds on their backs, often with their feet in stirrups, a less than optimum position for childbirth. Busy doctors and nurses bound by strict hospital routines were sometimes unsympathetic birth attendants – some women described being slapped, verbally threatened or criticised for their performance in labour. Fathers were excluded.

Women given drugs – sometimes without their consent – were often so heavily sedated they could not remember giving birth. Some felt a sense of loss and confusion. Sedation also affected the baby.

Most women knew little about childbirth and were not much better informed after giving birth. Former Auckland mayor Catherine Tizard described her experience of birth in 1951 as a time of ‘absolute alienation from everything and everyone in the world.’1

    • Sue Kedgley, Mum’s the word: the untold story of motherhood in New Zealand. Auckland: Random House, 1996, p. 161. Back

Childbirth, 1950s to 1980s

Mood for change

From the 1950s social movements arose which challenged the medical profession’s control of childbirth. Critics, including Parents Centre (founded in 1952), said that women should be in control of the process. Where birthing should occur and who should be present became controversial.

After 1971 midwives were not permitted to deliver babies without a doctor on hand. At the same time the number of home births was increasing (though still relatively small), partly as a result of the feminist movement and the precedent for alternative options set by Parents Centre. The Home Birth Association was founded in 1978.

These social movements spread throughout New Zealand. They brought groups of like-minded women (and some men) together to network locally. This provided the basis for successful lobbying at a national and political level.

No men allowed

Senior lecturer in psychology at Victoria University of Wellington Jim Ritchie took action when he was prevented from being with his wife during a difficult birth in 1964. He lodged a complaint with the Wellington Hospital Board, which responded by formally excluding husbands from the delivery suite. Ritchie wrote an article criticising this decision for the Dominion newspaper and organised a protest meeting attended by 150 people, but the board did not change its policy until 1971 – by a margin of one vote.

Changes in hospital care

Some hospitals made positive changes. Delivery suites were redecorated and lounges were provided for women. Later, birthing centres were established which tried to create a homely atmosphere. Some hospitals allowed husbands to attend births in the 1950s and 1960s. Wellington and Christchurch followed in the 1970s. De facto partners and boyfriends were allowed later.

Many small maternity hospitals closed between the 1970s and 1990s. Services were moved into large general hospitals. This was not popular with women. Some hospitals and later midwife groups opened special birthing units for low-risk women wanting intervention-free labours.

Midwife autonomy

The status of midwives assumed a critical role in childbirth debates. In the 1980s midwives campaigned to restore their ability to deliver babies without a doctor being present. The New Zealand College of Midwives was founded in 1989 to represent the profession.

These developments culminated in the Nurses Amendment Act 1990. Midwives became autonomous professionals like doctors. Women could choose an independent midwife, a general practitioner, a private obstetric specialist (who charged fees), a hospital-based team (midwives and doctors), or a combination. Birth could take place in hospital or at home.

The change was controversial. Some doctors were supportive, but others were concerned about issues like midwifery training for emergency services and access to pain relief for birthing women. A number of doctors argued that any birth without medical assistance was dangerous. Obstetricians (specialists in pregnancy and birthing) continued to offer free care to women in public hospitals when there were complications in a pregnancy or birth. They also offered care to women with normal pregnancies who were prepared to pay an extra amount as private patients.

Childbirth, 1990s to 21st century

Childbirth after 1990

The number of independent midwives increased from just 50 in 1991 to 350 in 1993. General practitioners (GPs) continued to offer maternity care after 1990, sometimes in partnership with midwives. Both were paid the same hourly rate.

Providing free maternity care using GPs and midwives was expensive. As a result, from 1996 women had to choose a single practitioner (a lead maternity carer, or LMC) who offered support during pregnancy and birth, and provided post-natal care for six weeks. LMCs received a lump sum from which additional health professionals were paid. If doctors were the LMC, they had to use the lump sum to pay for midwifery services such as care during birth and breastfeeding support. Midwives could undertake maternity care alone or pay for the services of other health professionals out of the amount allocated for each normal birth.

As a result of these changes, many GPs abandoned maternity care – an estimated 2,000 stopped delivering babies between 1996 and 2006. Private specialists were less affected because they could charge fees for their services to private patients, although they continued to offer free specialist care in public hospitals when there were complications during a pregnancy or a birth. This reduced the choices for women with normal pregnancies who wanted GP care or a combination of GP and midwifery. Many found it difficult to get midwifery care because demand outstripped supply.

Cascade of intervention

Some commentators talked about a ‘cascade of intervention’ related to hospital settings – a series of later medical interventions prompted by an initial one. Epidurals (local anaesthetic administered to the spinal cord) were widely available in New Zealand from the 1980s for pain relief. Studies showed that when labours were induced and epidurals used, the rate of unassisted vaginal births fell – the use of instruments like forceps, and deliveries by Caesarean section, were more likely.

Limited change

Some commentators expected the number of home births to increase significantly after 1990, but this did not happen. A large majority of women continued to give birth in hospitals. Planned home births increased from 0.04% of all births in 1973 to 2% in 1993 and 3.4% in 2014. Almost one in four births were induced in the latter year.

The dominance of midwives in maternity care did not reverse an increasing rate of medical intervention by specialist obstetricians. Caesarean sections increased from 11.7% of births in 1988 to 25.9% in 2014 – a trend seen in many developed countries. The World Health Organisation stated that no health benefits were associated with a Caesarean rate above 10–15%.

Some commentators argued that midwifery care and home births would make birth less safe. However, maternal and neonatal mortality rates remained low in the early 21st century. A 1997 study concluded that home births were safe in New Zealand – infant death rates were comparable to those for low-risk women at National Women’s Hospital in Auckland during the same period. However, data on home births has not been routinely collected at a national level, so it is not possible to determine annual death and injury rates.

Ongoing controversy

In the 21st century midwives provide care and support for women and their families during most normal pregnancies and births. They also visit women during the post-natal period and provide advice and support on breastfeeding and baby-care. Women with complications during pregnancy or birth are referred to specialist obstetricians who work in public hospitals.

Midwifery care continued to be controversial. A 2016 review of birthing data found that babies were less at risk during birth if their mothers' lead maternity carer was a doctor (81.5%) rather than a midwife (91.5%). The reasons for the difference included levels of funding, collaboration between midwives and doctors, and training.

The College of Midwives argued that the findings reflected the fact that the private hospitals where most obstetricians delivered babies were better resourced than public hospitals. They also highlighted the need for more obstetricians to be available round the clock in public hospitals to provide specialist care when complications occurred during births.

Overall, the risks of damage to babies at birth are very low in New Zealand, and most babies are delivered by midwives.

Payment for midwifery services

Independent midwives work as LMCs in small midwifery practices in the community. They are not paid by the hour, but through the lump sum system. 'Core' midwives work shifts in maternity units in hospitals and are paid by district health boards.

In September 2015 the New Zealand College of Midwives filed a pay equity claim in the High Court, asserting that the round-the-clock hours of LMCs meant that their hourly rate was below the minimum wage. The average yearly taxable income for an independent midwife was $53,728. The College of Midwives claimed that midwives, 'who are predominantly women', earned considerably less than those with similar qualifications and experience in male-dominated professions. They argued that this was a breach of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. In May 2017 the College of Midwives reached an agreement with the Ministry of Health to work collaboratively on a funding model that would pay community LMC midwives equitably for their work. The Ministry also agreed to interim fee increases for LMC midwives, some of them backdated, that constituted a 10.82% increase from July 2015.

The College of Midwives continued to negotiate with the Ministry of Health for a new co-design funding model for independent midwives that would provide greater income certainty, recognise business operating costs, and include payments for being on-call. The Midwifery Employee Representation and Advisory Service negotiated on behalf of midwives employed by district health boards for better base pay rates, penal rates for unsociable hours and on-call allowances. 

Birth rates

High birth rates, 1840 to 1870s

Between 1840 and the 1870s settler birth rates were high. At this time sexual intercourse mainly occurred within marriage. Because most women married, and did so at a young age, fertility was high. There were 6.5 to 7 live births per woman during this period – in 1878 there were almost 9 births per married woman. Māori fertility decreased at this time because of higher rates of miscarriage due to new communicable diseases like measles and whooping cough, the impact of malnutrition, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Declining birth rates, 1870s to 1930s

From the 1870s the Pākehā birth rate declined. It reached a low point in the 1930s during the economic depression, when it hovered around the population replacement level (2.1 births per woman). Women married later than in the mid-19th century, and more did not marry at all. Paid employment opportunities for women increased, and they often had to choose between work (and no children) or marriage (and children) – though some did both. Births outside marriage were still uncommon. These social changes led to lower birth rates and smaller family sizes: 2.9 children were born per woman in 1921, and 2.4 in 1931.

Birth control was limited. Though barrier methods such as condoms were available, married couples did not use them in significant numbers. Birth control became more significant later in the 20th century.

Māori fertility increased in this period as the effects of infectious diseases decreased. It remained at about six births per woman until the 1960s.

Baby boom

After the Second World War these trends reversed. In a return to the patterns of the mid-19th century, more women married and at younger ages – marriage remained a crucial factor influencing fertility rates. Women had their children young and in quick succession. These changes led to the ‘baby boom’ that lasted until the early 1970s. At its peak in 1961, the birth rate was 4.15 per woman. 

The baby boom was mainly a Pākehā phenomenon. Māori women's fertility rates remained consistent from the 1930 until the 1960s, when there was a significant drop in the number of children per woman.

Baby bust

Boom turned to bust for Pākehā women by the early 1970s. By this time the contraceptive pill and sterilisation were commonly used to control fertility within and outside marriage. The link between marriage and fertility was severed as more women became mothers without being married. The birth rate dropped to a new low of 1.87 births per woman in 1983 before climbing to over two during the early 1990s as a large cohort of women who had postponed pregnancy started having children. The rate fluctuated around two per woman from this point on. While Māori fertility fell, the birth rate remained higher than for Pākehā because the overall Māori population was younger. Pacific peoples had a higher birth rate and also a younger population overall, resulting in a higher than average fertility rate.

Famous quads

New Zealand’s first surviving quadruplets were born in Dunedin in 1935. Bruce, Mary, Kathleen and Vera Johnson attracted public and media attention from the moment they were born. A large state house was provided for the family (which grew to eight in total) and became a tourist attraction. Behind the scenes the Johnsons struggled – mother Kathleen Johnson wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, ‘How different is our lives to what the public think … Two pocket handkerchiefs and 10/- from a sewing guild was their birthday presents last year.’1

Multiple births

Women over 30 are more likely to have multiple children than their younger counterparts. Delays in childbearing combined with fertility treatment led to a rise in the number of multiple births from the late 20th century. Between the 1880s and 1991, 9 to 11 live births per 1,000 confinements were twins (0.9–1.1%). In 2014 multiple births were 1.5% of all births and had been around this figure for a decade. This was a statistically significant increase and the proportion was higher than in some other Western countries, such as France.

Birth outside of marriage

Couples who conceived children outside marriage often got married before the birth – a trend which peaked during the post-Second World War baby-boom years. Adoption was a common outcome when marriage did not take place.

This changed over the last decades of the 20th century. In 1962, 8% of babies were born outside of marriage. The proportion increased to 23% in 1982 and 44% in 2002. By 2015 it was 47%. In many cases the parents who were living together and bringing up their children jointly, but were not formally married.

    • Quoted in Sandra Coney, Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote. Auckland: Penguin, 1993, p. 67. Back

Postnatal and baby care

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.

    • Baby. Auckland: New Zealand Newspapers, 1960, p. 36. Back

Baby rituals and conventions

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Pregnancy, birth and baby care', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 September 2021)

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