Unacceptable racial disparities in breastfeeding rates that have existed for over 40 years, so during National Breastfeeding Awareness month, for the fifth year, America has celebrated National Black Breastfeeding Week which is a global movement to promote, protect, and support breastfeeding by any woman anywhere, and at any time.
Black Breastfeeding Week highlights the fact that Black women are less likely to initiate breastfeeding than their Latina and White counterparts. According to an August 2016 study published in Pediatrics, 61% of Black women will start breastfeeding compared with English-speaking and Spanish-speaking Latinas (90% and 91%, respectively) and White women (78%). Black women also breastfeed for the shortest length of time, a little more than 6.4 weeks being the average. Latinas and White women who breastfeed typically do so for between 10 and 17 weeks. By the time their babies are 6 months old, only 35% of Black mothers are breastfeeding as compared to about 56% of White mothers and 51% of Latinas.
Benefits of Breastfeeding
Low levels of breastfeeding in the Black community continue, even though pediatric health experts agree that when it comes to a newborn’s development, breast is best. According to Healthy Mom&Baby, there are seven key benefits from breastfeeding. They include:
More bonding: Skin-to-skin contact from birth and continuing during breastfeeding stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates bonding.
Better brains: Breastmilk builds better brains, in most studies, Breastfeeding is linked to higher IQ scores in later childhood in most such studies.
Less diarrhea: Breastmilk promotes higher quality bacteria in baby’s gut and poop, reducing diarrhea and baby’s chances of becoming obese or ever having type 2 diabetes.
Fewer infections: Breast milk gives baby antibodies that baby cannot make in any other way. These antibodies can help fight off viruses and bacteria that cause illness long before your baby can be fully immunized and make those antibodies themselves.
Reduced SIDS risk: Breastfed babies have a reduced risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).
Lower risk of cancer and osteoporosis: Breastfeeding lowers your risk of breast and ovarian cancer by about 20% each. Some studies are also showing it reduces your risk of bone thinning (osteopenia and osteoporosis) and even hip fracture later in life.
Faster weight loss: If the first 6 reasons aren’t enough to convince you to breastfeed your baby, consider that you burn an extra 500 calories a day when nursing. This could result in as much as a 1 pound loss a week while nursing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics among others implore new mothers to exclusively breastfeed their babies for at least six month, but today in America, the highest rate of breastfeeding is among wealthy Whites.
Black breastfeeding history
The dominance of breastfeeding among wealthy White women is a 180 degree shift from the history of breast feeding in pre-Civil War America, when Black women were forced to serve as wet nurses for White babies.
“Black babies weren’t getting the nutrients they needed, while White babies were thriving from a Black breast,” said Nikia Lawson, a doula whose advocacy and educational efforts around breastfeeding in communities of color are helping one mom at a time.
There were severe consequences of being caught feeding a Black baby from a White child’s supply. “Their baby could be sold or killed if caught, and it created a very negative energy around breastfeeding,” she added.
It is also important to consider the way formula is advertised, and what it offers psychologically to Black women. Marketing around the mass production of baby formula claimed it was better than breast milk. For many women, it “was reflective of social status—if you could afford formula, you had arrived,” Lawson said. Formula companies still highlight the freedom and sophistication associated with their product and associate breastfeeding with domesticity and poverty.
Don’t make assumptions
Lawson believes many birth workers lack this sort of cultural awareness. “The Black breastfeeding experience can be crippled when White birth workers bring biases and unintentional microaggressions to those who need their help,” she says. And with so few birth workers of color, it’s common for Black mothers to receive help from White birth workers who lack cultural competence.
Black moms are nine times more likely to be offered formula by hospitals than Whites, according to Jennifer Hahn-Holbrook, assistant professor in psychology at Chapman University and co-author of the study “Racial and Ethnic Differences in Breastfeeding.”
It is important that White birth workers take the time to educate themselves on the complexities of Black mothers and breastfeeding, instead of assuming they just don’t want to breastfeed. “Many believe they are doing Black women a favor by offering them formula,” Lawson said.
The stigma Black women face when breastfeeding is multidimensional. On the one hand, it’s associated with the lower classes. On the other, society has sexualized breasts to the point that nursing is considered unnatural. The natural functions associated with breastfeeding can be a source of ridicule and embarrassment. Shaming mothers for “pump” breaks, being inconsiderate of diet restrictions, and forcing mothers to feed in enclosed areas all play into reduced rates of breastfeeding in the Black community.
“Nothing in my breastfeeding education prepared me for the social stigma that comes with being a nursing mom. And as a Black breastfeeding mother, doing something “natural” felt so politicized, as if my presence was a challenge to all of the systems in existence,” wrote A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez, for “Yes” magazine. “Public breastfeeding was greeted with facial expressions of disgust and rude comments.”
Even within the Black community, people make comments that can discourage mothers from breastfeeding.
“No family members or more experienced mothers guided me, and intergenerational support is a key factor in breastfeeding success.” wrrote Meadows-Fernandez. “Comments like ‘I didn’t breastfeed, and my child turned out just fine”’ and ‘You know you don’t have to do this’ made me doubt my ability to accomplish breastfeeding at all, though they were meant to be encouraging.”
“It becomes 10 times harder to continue breastfeeding when you have no support and are constantly hearing that it’s dirty or nasty and hearing ignorance-based comments,” Lawson said. So if someone dear to you is breastfeeding, educate yourself on some of the struggles they may face. Offer encouragement and show your interest. Consider accompanying them to breastfeeding classes, or give them resources—books, websites on breastfeeding.