Māori health providers are hoping a new pilot programme will be the key to reducing infant deaths.

Hāpai Te Hauora, Aotearoa's largest Māori public health organisation, working with community health providers, is leading a series of wānanga that connects with hapū māmā and supports them on being smoke-free.

Hāpai describes the wānanga as being "about supporting whānau during their hapūtanga 'season' to educate them about what to expect during their pregnancy and the birth of their pēpi."

Torerenui-A-Rua Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāi Tai), is one of the māmā taking part in the wānanga.

She says that learning "your role as a mum through a Māori lens" is what sets these antenatal classes apart.

"It's changed my whole perspective on being a mum. Before, I was quite sad… I'm young and I'm having a baby … now, I actually feel like I am prepared mentally."

A recent New Zealand-based study released by The Journal of Pediatrics, "Infant Sleep Hazards and the Risk of Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy", has shown that bed-sharing and tobacco smoking during pregnancy are the leading risk factors for Sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI).

Fay Selby-Law, general manager of Hāpai's National SUDI Prevention Co-ordination Service, says that current approaches to reducing SUDI are not meeting the needs of whānau.

"Many whānau Māori, particularly young hapū wahine, don't go to antenatal classes or education of any type."

The māmā are weaving flax bassinets (wahakura) together while learning safe sleep practices, supporting the National SUDI Prevention Co-ordination Service's goals of increasing access to wahakura.

"We really wanted to see more wahakura because they're an Aotearoa product. They're developed from Papatūānuku (Earth Mother)."

Torerenui-A-Rua says that weaving wahakura helped her to "connect" with pēpi before her arrival.

"Knowing that she'll be safe sleeping in that, rather than sleeping in a plastic pēpi (baby) pod, or a cot by herself… I'm able to have her close to me and in the bed with me - but safely."

Current processes for accessing wahakura through health providers require whānau to answer prying questions and to fit into specific criteria, putting many off from accessing the woven bassinets which are proven to reduce the risk of SUDI.

"You have to be assessed, and for a lot of whānau that was invasive," says Selby-Law.

Throughout the pilot, māmā are reviewing the programme and community leaders are being consulted.

Selby-Law acknowledges the need for these types of programmes to be led by those within the community to "determine what they want."

Māmā who take part in the pilot are gifted self-care items at each wānanga, including journals to log their thoughts throughout their journey and a digitally connected heru (comb), which links to a phone application that shows a pēpi rising from the comb. The final stage of the wānanga includes a professional pregnancy or whānau photoshoot directed by the participants.

Te Pou shared that the wānanga helped her to feel "special."

"All the taonga you receive, as well as the mātauranga, is actually really beneficial."

"I left with my kete full. I wish every māmā could experience that because it makes you more connected with your baby before they're even here."

Fay hopes that the pilot will be the next step in reaching Māori communities who have been left behind by healthcare services.

"We may have it completely wrong, it's the awful thing about spending money that is taxpayers' money, but we've got to try some new things in SUDI prevention because for Māori and Pasifika whānau, we are not supporting the families who most need the support."

"We've got to figure it out."

Te Pou wants to see the programme made available to more māmā.

"Before I went, I didn't think that my mental health was that good; I didn't feel like I had everything ready and prepared. But after going through the wānanga I felt it was more about looking after yourself and preparing yourself."

"I really want a lot of māmās to experience this. I want a lot of different iwi to take on this initiative and start it within their own community to engage with their hapū māmā."

NZ Herald: New programme supports pregnant women to be smoke-free and save babies' lives