Story: Te whānau tamariki – pregnancy and birth

Page 2. Traditional practices – pregnancy and birth

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The word whānau means both to give birth and family, and hapū means both pregnant and clan, illustrating the significance of pregnancy and childbirth to Māori. The proverb ‘Mate i te tamaiti he aurukōwhao; mate i te wahine he takerehāia’ (the death of a child may be overcome, but the death of a woman is a calamity) shows the importance of producing children. When a family line was in danger of disappearing through lack of children it was called a whare ngaro (lost house).


When a woman had difficulty conceiving she would go to a tohunga, who would carry out the rite of whakatō tamariki. When Paratene and Katerina Ngata feared that they could not have children, they went to a tohunga and underwent a ritual. Afterwards Katerina became pregnant and gave birth to Āpirana, who became a Ngāti Porou politician.

In one tradition the hei tiki talisman was said to help with conception. The first tiki was given to Hineteiwaiwa by Tāne for this purpose. There were trees and stones known as tipua which were said to help people conceive. Examples include a supernatural rock, Uenukutuwhatu, at Kāwhia, and a tree, Te Hunahuna-a-pō, at Galatea, in the Bay of Plenty.

An error of judgement

‘Huatea’ is a Te Tai Rāwhiti (East Coast) word used specifically by Ngāi Tāmanuhiri to refer to childlessness. Their tipuna Hinenui said, ‘Taku hē ki te huatea, nō muri kē ko Te Huauri.’ (The blame fell on me for childlessness, yet now I have a child.) Hinenui was married to Tawakewhakatō, but to her distress she did not become pregnant. She left him for Tāmanuhiri, and soon became pregnant. One meaning of huatea is ‘without substance’, and the word is also used to describe other situations.

A woman who was not pregnant would stand over the whenua (placenta) of a new-born child to help her conceive. If a woman wanted a particular sex she would stand over the whenua of a male or female child. Some women chose to whāngai (adopt) children, which sometimes caused them to conceive.


For natural contraception supplejack and flax root were used, or toetoe and poroporo leaves.

The whakapā rite, involving karakia by a tohunga, was said to be a practice to avoid pregnancy which evolved after the arrival of Europeans.

Breastfeeding was a form of contraception – babies were breastfed for a long period, and women typically could not conceive another child until babies were weaned. Whakapapa show that women had fewer children before Western infant feeding practices were introduced.


During pregnancy a woman might begin to kumama (crave) or wainamu (dislike) certain foods. It was believed that these likes or dislikes came from the child.

Place of birth

Due to the tapu of childbirth women did not give birth in ordinary dwellings. Confinement took place in the open, or in purpose-built shelters, called whare kōhanga by some tribes. During birth, mothers would usually squat and hold on to handposts. The house used for birth, together with mats and other objects used, would be burned after labour.

Spare the rod

Babies born in Tauranga in the mid-19th century could look forward to a childhood free of physical discipline. French missionary Jean-Simon Bernard wrote home in 1844 complaining, ‘The children here are completely free; the parents never do anything to them. They never beat them and do not allow anyone else to beat them.’1


If childbirth was prolonged then a tohunga could recite a karakia to bring about the birth. Hineteiwaiwa had a difficult birth – the karakia to help her was ‘Ko te tuku o Hineteiwaiwa’. This karakia was also said over Rangiuru, wife of Whakaue, on Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua, when she was giving birth to Tūtānekai.

When a baby was born by breech presentation (whānau whakawae) it was considered the child would be smart and coordinated. A good athlete was described as a whānau waewae.

The umbilical cord was tied with flax fibre or thin stems of makahakaha, a creeper which grows on sandy beaches. The cut end would be smeared with oil (titoki).

Types of birth

There were three types of birth: rauru nui (large umbilical cord), an uncomplicated birth; rauru whiria (tangled umbilical cord), a long and difficult birth; and rauru maruaitu (umbilical cord of disaster) a difficult birth that led to a stillborn child.

Mana and tapu

Mana and tapu were inherited at birth. In one story, Uenuku, a high chief, was angered that his son Ruatapu (a product of a slave wife) used the comb of his son Kahutiaterangi (the son of his high-born wife). He said to Ruatapu that he was a pōriro or tama meamea (bastard) and was conceived on a ‘moenga rau-kawakawa’ (bed of leaves), whereas with Kahutiaterangi, ‘I aitia ki runga i te takapau wharanui.’ (He was conceived on a ‘wide woven mat’ – within a lawful marriage.)

  1. Quoted in Hugh Laracy, ‘The French connection’, New Zealand Listener, 27 February–5 March 2010, p. 24. Back
How to cite this page:

Hope Tupara, 'Te whānau tamariki – pregnancy and birth - Traditional practices – pregnancy and birth', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 April 2024)

Story by Hope Tupara, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jun 2017