Maori wellness and breastfeeding

Te Whare Tapa Wha is the Maori wellness model that illustrates the four cornerstones of health which are all needed to be strong to hold up a person, much like four sides are needed to be strong to hold up a house. The concept is if one corner is damaged, the whole person suffers.

These cornerstones are Taha Tinana (physical health), Taha Wairua (spiritual health), Taha Hinengaro (mental health) and Taha Whanau (family health).

As a holistic health scientist, this model really resonated with me over and above any of the others I have come across. It describes the inseparable body/mind connection where all factors come together rather than other models where each factor isn’t connected, rather they are like a contributing factors of a check list where you focus on each one without acknowledging the other.

The Maori wellness model is incredibly relevant to breastfeeding as breastfeeding is not just about the physical act of transferring nutrients, it’s about so much more than that.

Our Taha tinana or physical health refers to our capacity to grow physically, which is the obvious connection here with breastfeeding. Our capacity to develop optimally and nourish our essence starts at Mothers breast. Our babies physical body is not only given nutrients but also antibodies from Mum to baby to prevent illness, enzymes to aid digestion, recent research shows that breastmilk sugars are used by gut flora to grow good bacteria in the gut such as bifidobacterium infantis, it contains stem cells which baby can direct to parts of their bodies – and the list of goodies for benefit to physical health in breastmilk goes on! This is a game changer for our capacity for optimal physical growth. Also, Mum receives physical benefits too such protection from breast cancer and ovarian cancer for every year or two that she breastfeeds. This folds in with how our physical health is an integral part of our essence.

Our Taha hinengaro (mental wellness) is about our feelings, emotions and thoughts. It is about how we see ourselves in the bigger picture and how others might perceive us. Breastfeeding releases a feel good hormone called oxytocin, the same one which is released when we make love, when we’re in labour (in terms of hormones, it seems what gets the baby in, also gets the baby out!) and is released when we are breastfeeding. That moment when you sit down in the chair and bring baby to breast, your hormones are working to create that rested and relaxed, lovey vibe for you and baby. One thing I wanted to touch on here is regarding how we see ourselves and others see us, as never have I seen this in action more than with breastfeeding! If our husband, family, society etc value breastfeeding then we are much more likely to breastfeed ourselves and keep at it! It is in this way that the support roles to breastfeeding relate directly to our mental wellbeing.

Our Taha whanau (family wellness) refers to us as not just individuals but as part of wider societal systems. It’s who we are and also the strength to be who we are, it’s to share and care. Our babies rely on us as part of their wider societal system to care for them. They’re individuals in our whanau so we share and care for them. Breastfeeding is what our ancestors always did, it’s strongly who we were and who we can be as a collective again.

Taha wairua (spiritual health) is regarding the faith side of wellness and refers to it as unseen energies and essence which is our life force. A baby’s energetic life force is from breastmilk, breastfeeding is an act of our energy, our love, and it is shown that without love our babies brain development suffers and a newborn who is deprived of love, does not live. Referring to unseen energies, any breastfeeding Mum can see, to a child especially, it is more than just the transfer of nutrients. It is warmth and comfort through pain and fear, it is quality time together, a way to for a baby or toddler to say “I love you, I missed you, I want to be close with you”. It is those energies which bond Mum and baby together.

Breastfeeding is a mind/body experience with where every aspect of wellness is intertwined with each other, much the same as Te Whare Tapa Wha. Our breastfeeding rates for Maori are statistically lower than other groups in New Zealand which we can work on as individuals, as a whanau, as a collective and as a country so let’s be that support network for our friends, whanau and wider society and encourage by doing, breastfeeding itself encourages others to also breastfeed.