The pito, or umbilical cord, is how an unborn pēpi gets the nutrition they need to grow. It’s a direct access tube from māmā to pēpi. Anything that she eats, drinks, and even inhales is shared with pēpi.
Whānau may want to think and talk about what to do with their baby’s pito when it’s time. Some people will bury it or put it in a place significant to the whānau, where it won’t be disturbed. This practice also reinforces the relationship between pēpi and the earth mother, Papatūānuku.
The whenua, also known as the placenta or afterbirth, is another very important part of ensuring pēpi is nurtured during hapūtanga. During those 9 months, the whenua transfers both food and oxygen from māmā to pēpi. It also transfers all the paru, or waste, that pēpi produces for mum to get rid of.
A short while after pēpi is born, the whenua will follow. Maternity staff will examine it carefully to check that it’s fully intact. This is very important, as it ensure mum’s wellbeing. If pieces are missing and remain within the whare tangata, this can cause an infection.
Just like the pito, some whānau will bury the whenua. In te reo Māori, ‘whenua’ also means ‘land’. ‘Whenua ki te whenua’ describes the traditional practice of returning the afterbirth of newborn babies to their ancestral lands. Through this tikanga Māori practice, the link is made with Papatūānuku, and the life-sustaining role that both whenua the land, and whenua the placenta play in feeding the people is acknowledged.
Nurturing tamariki through understanding both their everyday and historical connections takes this symbolism to a practical level. This involves learning about home and whānau links — the beginnings of whakapapa — and geographical connections such as to their maunga, awa and marae, through related stories and songs.
An ipu whenua is a special container to hold the whenua after pēpi is born. Traditionally made from hue (gourd) or clay, ipu whenua were buried in a special place where whānau knew they wouldn’t be disturbed. Ipu whenua can be made from natural materials that are ‘friendly’ to the whenua and will break down easily. This tikanga keeps māmā and pēpi always connected to the land.
Whānau who don’t live on their ancestral lands may want to keep the whenua until they have the opportunity to return to their papa kāinga. Freezing the whenua may be an option, but traditionally anything associated with the body isn’t stored with kai. Keeping the whenua buried in a temporary container, like a large plant pot of soil, might be more acceptable for whānau. They can keep the placenta there until it can be transferred to the land.
Some whānau will have a specific place where many of the whānau members will return their whenua. Others may plant a tree to identify the place where the whenua was buried.