August is here, so you know what that means! It is National Breastfeeding Month. Woo-hoo! While the entire month garners education, support, and positivity regarding this most natural thing, the last week, August 25th– 31st, is designated Black Breastfeeding Week, and if you cannot tell, I am excited about it!
When I began my 18-month breastfeeding journey with my oldest son, almost three years ago, I had no idea that I was doing something out of the norm in my community. Now that I am aware of this, joining the movement to do something about it has become a passion of mine. Before we move forward, let me be clear: this is not a “breast is best” rant. By all means, feed your little one however you see fit. And while race should not play a factor in the method in which you choose to feed your baby, statistics show that sadly, it does.
That is why I am focusing this article on the issues many melanated milky mamas may face, in an effort to raise awareness so that more brown babies might get to experience the benefits of chocolate milk.
Did you know that in every aspect of breastfeeding (initiation, duration, and longevity) black women are ranked the lowest among all ethnic groups? I will not get too deep into numbers as they are constantly changing from updated research, but on average black women are about 16% less likely than our Caucasian and Hispanic sisters to initiate breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics disseminates that info here in a publication titled Racial and Ethnic Differences in Breastfeeding, but the takeaway is that, across the board, we are at the bottom of the totem pole when the rubber meets the road.
On a personal note, my first encounter with breastfeeding began when I was a teenager. My mom did not breastfeed me and I never really heard her talk about it, but my older cousin, who is more like my big sister, did. She has four children and breastfed them all around me and would constantly explain how beneficial it was for babies. As time went on, I did my own research and realized the health benefits were not just for the baby, but for mama, too. At that point I knew I would try my best to do this with my kids. I was fortunate to have my cousin expose me, but that is not always the case. And sometimes even when women know the benefits of breastfeeding, they decide against doing it for many reasons.
One of those reasons, which dates back centuries, has to do with an important part of American history: slavery.
Some women associate the act of breastfeeding with that hurtful time in our past and so have chosen not to do it. Historically speaking, many black women were wet nurses, often being forced to feed the children of their slave masters, while sometimes not being allowed to feed their own. The idea of wet nurse may seem ancient, but in reality, wet nurses were pretty common until the early twentieth century. The stigma that eventually came from being one was that you were of a lower class and somewhat looked down upon. Feelings of shame and disinterest in breastfeeding were birthed in some women during this time and have since been passed down through the generations. This is why education is key when it is accessible.
The health benefits of breastfeeding are plentiful.
It provides immune boosting antibodies, reduces the risk of illness, disease, allergies, obesity, and ultimately provides optimal nutrition for babies. Mom also benefits; some benefits include decreasing her chances of developing postpartum depression, weight loss, and the decreased risk of illness. However, not all mothers are being encouraged to breastfeed their babies, even with these plentiful benefits. A recent study, by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), found that maternity care facilities in areas with a greater African American population were less likely to help mothers attempt breastfeeding after delivery or offer lactation support. Then, oftentimes, the black mothers who do get the support and are able to breastfeed, have to cut their time short as they are more likely to have to return to work before the standard twelve week maternity leave mark. This can be detrimental as those first twelve weeks are crucial in establishing and maintaining a solid supply for your nursling.
These reasons, coupled with a lack of support from family, and the physical challenges one may face when learning how to actually do it, are factors in why we, as black women, have the lowest numbers of breastfeeding mothers. However, please do not be discouraged, because there is good news. Black Breastfeeding Week has shone light on these disparities and thus many more resources are now available to mothers than in years past. Therefore, if you wanted to breastfeed your child(ren), but for whatever reason, did not, you can check out some of the following groups to get that chance in the future if you so choose.
Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association is a nonprofit that aims to “have a national impact on the reduction of racial disparities in breastfeeding success of black families.” For African American mothers needing assistance with anything breastfeeding related, this is a good source as they provide education, valuable resources, and a plethora of information to assist you. They are also in the process of starting an app so that you can have access to tips and strategies for a successful breastfeeding experience at your disposal.
Additionally, Black Breastfeeding 360 is a great source that is now available. This is a “comprehensive, multi-media content library of resources , perspectives & voices of the black breastfeeding experience.” Here, you can ask questions to a lactation consultant, get email updates with important breastfeeding information, and share your story to connect with other brown mamas.
Also, let us not forget social media when we are talking resources. Some popular and informative Instagram pages are @BlackMomsBreastfeed and @BlackInfantHealth_tcci. On Facebook you can check out Soul Food for Your Baby, Black Breastfeeding Mamas Circle, and Breastfeeding Support Group for Black Moms. There is also a page specifically for Black Breastfeeding Week that has more information on upcoming events, many of which will now be offered virtually so mamas from all over can partake.