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Ūkaipō describes the the relationship between māmā and a breastfeeding pēpi, and gives insights into breastfeeding and te ao Māori.

Kua hoki mai nei ki te ūkaipō
Return to your spiritual and physical nourishment

What is ūkaipō?

A Dictionary of the Maori Language (Williams, 1957) translates ‘ūkaipō’ simply as ‘mother’, and references Ngā Mōteatea by Sir Āpirana Ngata.

Te Aka Māori Dictionary defines ūkaipō as ‘mother, source of sustenance’.

The literal translation of ūkaipō refers to being fed (kai) by the breast (ū) at night (pō). The word ūkaipō evokes layers of physical, spiritual, and emotional connections within the important relationship between māmā and pēpi.

Why breastfeed?

Even though there are other choices, there are many good reasons why breastfeeding is still considered the best way to feed pēpi:

  • Breast milk provides an excellent source of nutrition and protective antibodies for pēpi.
  • The act of breastfeeding provides the perfect conditions for attachment and bonding to happen between māmā and pēpi.
  • It fulfils the requirements for pēpi’s closeness, comfort and calming, and contributes to the protective factors discussed below.
  • It strengthens the relationship between pēpi and the whānau, through māmā.
  • It reinforces the importance of the mother’s role.

In pre-European days there was no choice about whether to breastfeed or not. If the biological mother was unable to breastfeed, then another member of the whānau would take over the responsibility. This reinforced the traditional values of shared caring and raising of children.

‘Everybody who has the welfare of the people at heart knows that the child of to-day is the man or woman of to-morrow, and that the foundation of any strong virile race, fit to fight in the forefront of the battle of life, lies in the care that a mother gives her child before and after its birth.’

— Miria Woodbine Pomare (1949)

Māmā are special

A māmā is a very special person. Some new mothers may not feel that special. Some may not ever have been told they are special. If you’re supporting such a māmā, this is a good opportunity to reinforce this message. Not only has she carried pēpi through their very important first 9 months, she is nourishing pēpi and keeping pēpi alive, just as her tīpuna have done over the centuries.

Ko au te whenua, ko te whenua au
I am the land and the land is me

The same word, ‘whenua’ refers to the placenta and the land. ‘Whenua ki te whenua’ is when the placenta is returned to the land.

Te pito me te whenua | Tākai

A similar relationship exists between the mother – ūkaipō – and Papatūānuku. This reference to mother earth exists in many cultures. The relationship between land and people parallels the relationship between mother and baby. People are dependent on, and connected to, Papatūānuku for physical safety, nutriment, shelter, spiritual connection, a sense of belonging and for overall wellbeing. As our mother links us to our ancestral past, so the land links us to our ancestors’ lives and livelihood.

Discussing ūkaipō

This blog post by Kiri Dell explores thoughts and insights into ūkaipo:

Whenua ūkaipō: Returning to the mother | kupumaemae(external link)

You may also wish to study Kirsten Gabel’s doctoral thesis. Dr Gabel draws on Māori cosmologies, mōteatea, whakataukī and pakiwaitara to explore traditional aspects of motherhood from pre-European times, and examines the effects on those traditions with the coming of tauiwi:

Poipoia te tamaiti ki te ūkaipō Gabel, K. (2013) | The University of Waikato(external link)

For a modern-day message about breastfeeding, read Dame Tariana Turia’s speech:

Breastfeeding week : The Big Latch On! | Beehive.govt.nz(external link)

She quotes the following whakataukī in her speech, reinforcing the profound importance of the role of a breastfeeding mother in “…contributing to whānau ora – taking up the responsibility for all of our whānau to be well, to be healthy, to be strong”.

Piripoho describes the newborn pēpi who is not yet sitting independently. Literally, piri (to cling); poho (chest). In other words, a breastfeeding pēpi.

He aroha whāereere, he pōtiki piripoho

A mother’s love, a breast-clinging child

Hirini Moko Mead describes how Best (1924), Firth (1973) and Ihaka (1857) have interpreted this whakataukī:

‘Because of a mother’s love for her child, the child clings to her. A mother normally treasures her child more than anything else in this world. She would rather suffer than see her child in any form of misfortune.’

— Ngā pēpeha a ngā tipuna (Hirini Moko Mead, 2004)

Where to get help with breastfeeding

Sometimes breastfeeding does not come easily, it’s important to know who in your community can help when breastfeeding is a challenge. The best place to start is with the midwife, lead maternity carer or the Well Child Tamariki Ora programme.

Well Child Tamariki Ora(external link)