Story: Te whānau tamariki – pregnancy and birth

Page 3. Rites and baby care

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Whenua – afterbirth

The word for the placenta, ‘whenua’, is also the word for land. The umbilical cord close to a baby’s body is the pito. The part nearest the placenta is the rauru, and the central cord is the iho.

The whenua was taken after birth and buried on ancestral whenua, which linked the baby with their tribal land. This practice continues in the early 21st century among some whānau. The iho was carefully disposed of in a tapu hollow tree, or at the foot of a boundary post. A famous tree where numerous iho were buried is known as Te Iho-o-Kataka, a renowed hīnau tree.

Baby milestone

Māori had a word for a baby who has just learnt to roll over: owhaowha. There was a saying, ‘Kia owhaowha te tamaiti, katahi ka tohia’ – once the little one can roll over, it is time for the tohi ceremony.

Rites of birth

There were a number of rites performed for babies. In the tohi ceremony a child was sprinkled with water and dedicated to an atua – Tūmatauenga or Rongo in the case of a boy, and Hineteiwaiwa in the case of a girl. Following this was the ‘pure’ ceremony. Karakia and speeches were made, and then the parents and their relations had a feast. Those involved in the ceremonies underwent whakanoa, a ceremony to remove tapu.

While circumcision occurred in Polynesia, in New Zealand it was largely abandoned.

Too late

Among some iwi it was traditional to blow the tātara (conch shell) at the birth of the eldest son. When the first child of Tūwharetoa chief Horonuku Te Heuheu and Tahuri Te Tuaki was born, the tātara was blown as it was believed the baby would be a boy – but the baby was a girl. When the next child was born he was named Tūreiti Te Heuheu, because he came ‘too late’ (Tūreiti) for the conch-shell blessing.

Baby care

Mosses such as angiangi and kohukohu were used as diapers. Then a kope (type of nappy) was made for the child. Babies slept in flax sleeping baskets.

A mother would carry a baby on her back.


Wai ū (breast milk) and whāngai ū (breastfeeding) appear as metaphors in Māori literature and art in a range of ways, from mōteatea (traditional chants) to whare whakairo (structural carving).

Before European settlement breastfeeding was the only option for feeding babies. Breastfeeding has significant health benefits for babies, and allows a mother to develop a unique bond with her baby.

To wean a child off breastfeeding, mothers would someties rub their breasts with the bitter-tasting sap from the kawakawa tree.

To introduce children to solids, mothers would chew taro or sweet potato and then feed it to the child. There were karakia to soothe babies who were teething.


Oriori were sung to babies. These differ from lullabies because they contain the whakapapa, histories and legends of a newborn baby’s whānau. Oriori are still composed to celebrate the imminent birth or arrival of a new baby.

If the conception of a child consummated the joining together of different tribal groups, oriori celebrated this union. Two widely sung oriori are ‘Pō! Pō!’ about the origin of the kūmara, composed by Enoka Te Pakaru of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki, and ‘Pine pine te kura’. composed for Te Umurangi of Ngāti Kahungunu who was descended from Te Whatuiāpiti.


Whāngai is a child adoption tradition in Maori society that continues to be practised. It emphasises a child’s connection to whānau and iwi, the collective from whom their identity comes. Children are raised by close relatives, openly in contact with their birth parents.

How to cite this page:

Hope Tupara, 'Te whānau tamariki – pregnancy and birth - Rites and baby care', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

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