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Turia - 'Good health starts at the breast'

Launch of Hikoi : Wai uu Wai ora Hauora Whanui Offices, Walton Street, Whangarei

Monday 31 July 2006

Tariana Turia, Co-leader, Maori Party

Almost a century ago, Dr Maui Pomare, published a booklet, "Ngä Kohungahunga Me Ngä Kai Ma Ratou" which included the following incitation:

"Ko te U o the whaea te mea tika, a ko te te atua hoki tena i homai ai hei ngote ma nga pepe"

The booklet recommended that the mother's breast - or indeed the breast sought of another woman - is so right, providing the woman is a healthy woman.

I raised all my children on the breast, believing then, as I do today, that it was not only the most natural and the most nutritious, but it also confers significant benefits in terms such as reducing the risk of respiratory infections, SIDS, asthma or diabetes.

Being suckled on your mother's breast essentially means you are being suckled in your own home. It is a vital opportunity for bonding between mother and child, an opportunity which should be promoted and valued within the whole whanau.

And that's got to be good for you.

I was really rapt to read a comment in Te Kukupa from Ossie Peri, Te Rarawa kaumatua, which said, and I quote, "This is where good health starts - at the breast".

Our concept of ukaipo, literally to feed, is not just the physical nurturing of the child, but also the spiritual and emotional nurturing which serves to eventually make the adult. And again, as my friend Dr Pita Sharples says, it's all about whanau.

Many of us may remember the awkwardness, the anxieties, the uncertainty when baby can't latch on, when the nipples are sore and tender, when nothing seems to work. That's when the wonder of whanau come into their own - partners, mums, aunties, sisters help to maintain the motivation to keep feeding, to persevere.

And it's whanau who will help provide the support when suddenly our breasts become the focus of so much attention for all the wrong reasons- cracked nipples, inverted nipples, mastitis all getting in the way between establishing a good routine.

Breast-feeding is, according to those who study such things, the most 'ecologically sound' way to nurture infants. It is also one of the most significant indicators of adequate maternal education and support. And it's cheap - indeed it's free!

According to Raina Kitchen, mother of national squash champion Shelley Kitchen, the fact that Shelley was breastfed until she was four may well account for her supernatural powers!

Breastfeeding is also good for Mum. It speeds up the contraction of the uterus back to a normal size after birth, it can help to provide emotional and physical satisfaction to the mother, and can help to reduce the risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer.

So if it's so good for you, why all the fuss?

Well it appears no matter how good it is, the mere thought of having to breastfeed for ever seems to be one of the biggest problems.

For tangata whenua, the drop off rate from six weeks to three months is particularly high. Only 13-14% of Maori babies are being fully breastfed at six months old, compared to 19-21% of European and other babies.

The focus of exclusive breastfeeding is important because it increases the likelihood of health advantages such as fewer illnesses, chest infections of tummy upsets. It reduces the incidence and severity of infectious and non-infectious diseases, thereby lowering infant mortality and morbidity.

So why do our women give up early, or worse yet, not even start?

There's a heap of myths around the whole concept of breast-feeding that may be off-putting.

Those myths have been around for a long time.

I was reading in Te Ao Hou, an edition of April 1955, about the idea held by many Maori mothers that their milk does not agree with the baby.

Other more recent myths are that a woman may lose her firmness of figure, or that formula is good, if not better.

There are other, more far-fetched myths, that the late Dr Irihapeti Ramsden brought out through her work. In an article, improving practice through research, Irihapeti referred to a myth around the turn of the century that legislation was passed which forbid Maori women from breast-feeding their children.

Maori legal students and nursing students combed Hansard for proof and found absolutely no evidence of such an Act. There is none. But it may well have indicated the social attitudes at the time, which frowned on breast-feeding in public.

There was, however, a report by Te Rangihiroa, which described desperate Maori parents trying to copy cow's milk, by combining flour and water. Only the well-off had cows. The state of health of our people was in crisis condition- tuberculosis, infectious diseases, the savage impact of land alienation and the aftermath of the land wars, all causing to a breakdown of tragic proportions.

And our babies died, in large numbers. As Irihapeti pointed out, the truth is much more powerful and much more horrifying than the myths.

I'm really excited to be here today to join your call to hikoi.

Our people have always been drawn to hikoi as a ritual of healing and empowerment. Hikoi are powerful journeys of education, of empowerment, to provoke awareness.

The role of hikoi, as our elders tell us, is to remind those in power that important issues will not go away.

I celebrate your hikoi, to re-establish breastfeeding as a cultural norm, it is part of our rich heritage as Tangata whenua to retain and reclaim our traditional ways of caring for our babies, to fully achieve wellbeing.

It is time to confront the facts, including the fact that Maori babies are more likely to be artificially fed from birth than any other babies.

Plunket data showed that at the two to six week check up, a quarter of our babies were being bottle fed.

We need to shout it out -exclusive breast feeding meets baby's complete nutritional needs for the first four to six months of life. It doesn't have to be heated, to be mixed up, there's low risk of bacterial contamination, it even helps to reduce the risk of food allergies.

And just last week, at the inquiry into obesity and type two diabetes, I heard even more support from another field. We heard how improving breast-feeding, enhances optimal health, and should be a key part of any obesity prevention strategy.

Or putting it another way, artificial baby milk, and premature introduction of solids can lead to increased risk of obesity.

The figures are pretty daunting. 41% of Maori children, and 62% of Pacific children are overweight or obese.

It's no one factor in isolation. It's whole lifestyle course of action. But when a whole host of research shows a positive relationship between breastfeeding, reduced obesity and reduced development of diabetes, it makes sense to me.

I'm not a scientist by any means, but the components of breastmilk change in composition during feeding, and it appears the way that breastfed babies also self-regulate - control their own feeding - is another mechanism which is thought to be of influence.

The call to hikoi is a way of also promoting the right to breastfeed, te tika ki te whangai u.

We know that some complaints about disadvantageous treatment relating to breast-feeding have been upheld by the Human Rights Commission as sex discrimination.

And that Elizabeth Weatherly and some 8992 others took their petition to Parliament to address the lack of protection for the rights of breastfeeding women and their children.

It is an indictment on our current Government that they have failed to act in extending protection to breastfeeding mothers - that despite the recommendations of the Health select committee last year to amend the Human Rights Act 1993, this Government again thinks it knows best, and rejected the call.

That is why hikoi like today are so powerful.

It is time for us to restore to ourselves, our rights and responsibilities, our power to truly realise our potential.

It is time to support the kaupapa, Breast Milk is the Best Milk.

As we join here today to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, it is time to celebrate ourselves,

To remind each other, kua hoki mai nei ki te ukaipo.

Helen Leahy

ENDS


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