Breastfeeding While Black: Black Mothers Climbing the Uphill Battle
Breastfeeding is a natural part of the child-rearing process. Others will opt to breast pumping and then bottle feed or rely entirely on formula, but it’s undeniable that breastfeeding isn’t widely accepted even though it’s just a mother feeding her child.
Last year, stories of mothers feeding their children in public places attracted much attention. With women being told to move out of the public eye, cover up their feeding child, to even having the police called on them since they refused.
Even though public breastfeeding is protected legally by all 50 states, there is not only a significant disparity between who view it as acceptable but also what races breastfeed.
After a study held between 2011 and 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that the percentage of Black women who initiated breastfeeding was 64.3 percent, which doesn’t seem like a wrong number.
However, when compared to White and Hispanic women, it falls significantly short with 81.5 percent for Whites, and 81.9 percent for Hispanics initiating breastfeeding. These disparities also jump from state to state with “breastfeeding initiation rates significantly lower among black infants in 23 states; in 14 of these states, the difference was at least 15 percentage points.”
So where is this disparity coming from and why is it happening?
After diving into more research, it’s apparent that the main things creating this gap are:
black women having to return to work earlier
lack of access and information from providers and professionals
lack of support from other black women in the community due to no education about breastfeeding
The CDC’s report found a “significant difference of at least ten percentage points in exclusive breastfeeding through 6 months between black and white infants in 12 states.” This naturally comes from black women having to go back to work sooner since the average maternity leave length is only 12 weeks or 3 ½ to 4 months if they are even able to get maternity leave.
Implicit biases and racism undoubtedly contribute to a lack of access and information regarding breastfeeding from providers and professionals. That alone leads to black women using formula at higher disproportionate rates than white women and marketing focusing mainly on black and brown women.
Then, the history of black women breastfeeding has been painful and complicated. From black women having to wet nurse their slaveholders’ children and letting their children starve or die, to the creation of a baby formula that became popular and deemed more sophisticated. Breastfeeding then had an association with class status, prompting women to use formula more often as the years continued.
However, because of this history of breastfeeding and formula popularity, black women simply lacked the information to be able to breastfeed and how to go about it to other black women. Black women attempting to breastfeed have to go at it alone, which can be daunting, sad, and isolating.
As of today, Black mothers continue to talk about and spread awareness around their experiences within their communities and from medical professionals.
“I don’t believe Black women are supported enough to breastfeed,” said Christena Nataren, “I wish I had more emotional support and understanding from both medical professionals as well as coworkers and family members who were purely ignorant on the subject.”
Sierra Bowman opened up to The Washington Post about her difficult beginning with breastfeeding.
“I was young, and even though the hospital gave me a lactation consultant, she wasn’t much help. She didn’t give me any real guidance on proper latching. I was on many medications after pregnancy because I had eclampsia, so by the time I could even breastfeed, my daughter was already adjusted to the bottle.”
Stephanie Devane-Johnson, certified midwife nurse, did her research about breastfeeding among black women with unsurprising results.
“In the formula-feeding group, it was just assumed,” she said. Some women who had breastfed said it was a topic that couldn’t be addressed in their families. “If they did breastfeed, they didn’t breastfeed at, say, their aunt’s house, [because] they would tell them, ‘You can’t do that in my house. Breastfeeding is nasty,’” Devane-Johnson said. “You don’t talk about ‘boobies,’ because breasts are sometimes seen as sexual and not as functional.”
Testimonials and research further prove the point that black women breastfeeding has to come from within the community, as well as healthcare professionals and providers stepping up to educate black women on the importance of breastfeeding and providing proper lactation consultants and classes.
Unfortunately, the disparity between black women breastfeeding leads to infant mortality rates twice as high for black babies than white babies.
The benefits of breastfed babies include reducing the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), decreasing the risk of asthma, upper respiratory infections, and ear infections, aids in lowering future risk of obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
Breastfeeding even does wonders for mothers by reducing the risk for uterine, breast, and ovarian cancers decrease the risk of heart disease and drop pregnancy weight faster since breastfeeding burns up to 500 calories per day.
So where do go we from here? Black women are already doing what they do best by taking matters into their own hands. They’re working to reduce the community stigma of breastfeeding by educating other black women, sharing their stories, and providing events due to the creation of Black Breastfeeding Week, which is held during Breastfeeding Awareness Month in August.
Also, black women are making good use of social media by posting themselves breastfeeding on Instagram and creating groups on Facebook for them to communicate and provide tips to other black women learning how to breastfeed.
Other black women are taking a step further by becoming midwives, doulas, nurses, lactation consultants and more so that other black women can get the information and help they need from healthcare professionals and providers from people who look like them and understand what they have to deal with.
Reducing that nearly 20 percent gap between black women that breastfeed compared to other women is going to take time and be a challenge, but it’s a fight black women are willing to take on.