Connection to te ao Māori supports breastfeeding

New research finds wahine Māori with a connection to te ao Māori are more likely to exclusively breastfeed for the baby's first six months.

Baby held by mother.
Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first six months.

New research looking at what supports exclusive breastfeeding in wāhine Māori has found that mothers with greater connections with te ao Māori are more likely to exclusively breastfeed their babies for the recommended six months.

The research, recently published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, drew on information from over a thousand wāhine Māori participating in Growing Up in New Zealand, Aotearoa’s largest study of child development.

Co-author of the University of Auckland study, Dr Catherine Gilchrist says the findings are valuable and can inform interventions to protect, promote and support Māori women to exclusively breastfeed their babies.

Dr Gilchrist said, “nearly all wāhine Māori (96%) start breastfeeding. Exclusive breastfeeding to six months old is beneficial for both pēpi and wāhine Māori and 12 percent of wāhine Māori in the study achieved this.”

She said the study identified several factors that influence the likelihood of ongoing exclusive breastfeeding for wāhine Māori. 

The research showed that connection to te ao Māori, knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding recommendations, how mothers felt about returning to work, and incidence of maternal depression during pregnancy were all factors that influenced exclusive breastfeeding duration.

Dr Denise Bennett, a paediatrician and co-author of the study, said that the study contributes to the body of evidence demonstrating the impact of colonisation on hauora Māori, and how te ao
Māori offers specific benefits for pēpi and wāhine Māori.

 “Colonisation has resulted in the loss of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), including breastfeeding tikanga,” said Dr Bennett.

The research also showed that wāhine Māori who felt that returning to work would limit breastfeeding were less likely to carry on exclusively breastfeeding until six months.

Dr Gilchrest said, “paid parental leave is currently six months, but this may only cover up to about five and half months of baby’s life and not all women have access to paid leave. It’s really important that exclusive breastfeeding to six months is supported because it’s well known that it’s beneficial for both babies and their mothers.”

Dr Bennett said the study also found that maternal depression during pregnancy impacts exclusive breastfeeding longevity.

“I would like to see targeted resources aimed at early recognition and support of these wāhine Māori experiencing depression during pregnancy,” she said.

“Support for wāhine Māori breastfeeding needs to come from all of society, including government, employers, communities, whānau and wāhine Māori.  Actions we take now will impact the hauora of wāhine Māori and pēpi in generations to come,” said Dr Bennett.

Media queries

Julia Crosfield, Media and Communications, Growing Up in New Zealand
021 911 692

Saraid Black. Communications Manager, Growing Up in New Zealand
: 0274 732 211

Notes for editors:

Information on breastfeeding recommendations

  • Breastfeeding is a fundamental aspect of tikanga Māori (Māori cultural traditions/practices) requiring protection and promotion. Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the United Nations recognise this tika tūāpapa (fundamental right).
  • The Global Nutrition Target for 2025 is for 50% of infants under six-months-old being exclusively breastfed. See: Global nutrition targets 2025: breastfeeding policy brief (
  • The New Zealand Ministry of Health and World Health Organization (WHO) recommend exclusive breastfeeding for six months followed by continued breastfeeding with complementary foods up to two years old. See: Breastfeeding | Ministry of Health NZ

NZMJ: “Determinants of exclusive breastfeeding for wāhine Māori”

  • Type of manuscript: Original article, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, Vol 135 No 1555: 20 May 2022. 
  • Authors: Denise Bennett*, Catherine A. Gilchrist*, Rochelle L. Menzies, Matire Harwood, Te Kani Kingi, Polly Atatoa Carr, Susan Morton, Cameron C. Grant. * These authors contributed equally to this work
  • This study identifies determinants of exclusive breastfeeding in wāhine Māori.
    Participants were wāhine Māori enrolled in the Growing-Up-in-New-Zealand child cohort study participated (n=1060).

About Growing Up in New Zealand:

  • Growing Up in New Zealand is Aotearoa’s largest contemporary longitudinal study of child development following more than 6,000 children from before birth. The children in the study reflect the ethnic and sociodemographic make-up of children born in New Zealand in the early 21st century.
  • The study is focused on what works to optimise child development and wellbeing.
  • Children and families generously give their time to the study. Currently we are contacting families for a report about turning 12-years-old. Find out more about Growing Up in New Zealand’s research at
  • Growing Up in New Zealand is a University of Auckland study, managed by UniServices Limited and is funded by the New Zealand Government.