More and more Black mothers are breastfeeding their babies, but yet, there is still a major disparity between the number of white mothers who opt to breastfeed and their Black counterparts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
Andrea Freeman, PhD, the author of “Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race, and Injustice,” says there are many reasons — historical, cultural, and practical — that Black women opt not to breastfeed or that they do so for a shorter period of time than their white counterparts.
“It is not always an individual choice,” Freeman says.
Freeman suggests that doctors and their nursing staff make assumptions about Black women’s interest in breastfeeding their babies. “They are not offered the same kind of assistance after giving birth,” she says.
“In fact, many Black women are offered infant formula to feed their babies, without discussing the health benefits of breastfeeding.”
Lisa North, 28, agrees. She gave birth 6 weeks ago and had planned to breastfeed in the hospital and continue as long as possible. “I was surprised when they gave me formula for my daughter, even though I kept saying no,” she said. “My husband had to call my doctor to get it straightened out.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months of an infant’s life.
But it can be an obstacle for Black moms who often have to return to their jobs earlier than other racial and ethnic groups. They have more challenges to breastfeeding or expressing milk during inflexible work hours.
And while the numbers of Black mothers who breastfeed is growing, they often find fewer support systems and role models among their friends and families.
Kimberly Seals Allers, journalist, breastfeeding advocate, and author of “Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy” and “The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding,” says that “as much awareness there is in communities of color, there are still negative perceptions of breastfeeding that have to be overcome.”
There are so many direct health benefits to both mother and baby that can have an impact after birth but could also have long-term benefits.
Breastfed babies have been shown to have fewer gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses and a reduced risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and other causes of infant mortality.
Long term, children who are breastfed have fewer allergies, and a reduced risk for diabetes and obesity. The breastfeeding experience also supports and strengthens bonding between baby and mother, starting right after birth.
Black women stand to gain a variety of health benefits through breastfeeding.
Felicia Williams, 34, who gave birth last year and is still breastfeeding 9 months later, says, “I wanted to breastfeed, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep going without support.”
She gave birth at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, which is one of many medical facilities that have a “baby-friendly hospital” designation.
Baby-friendly hospitals have policies in place to support women as they seek to get off to a good start.
“Breastfeeding isn’t always easy and can be a little stressful until you get the hang of it,” Williams says.
When she got to the point where she wanted to quit, she says she got additional support from some of the hospital’s peer educators.
Peer educators — and lactation consultants who work in the community — can help guide a new mom through the challenges that might prevent them from continuing breastfeeding and help make sure their babies are thriving and getting enough nourishment.
Seals Allers says there is a lot that goes into supporting mothers and babies in breastfeeding successfully.
Hospitals and birthing centers wield enormous influence over the first days of life and play a critical role in determining breastfeeding success.
If you’re thinking about breastfeeding, do your homework. Here are some things you can do to help prepare yourself for the breastfeeding journey.
- Talk to your doctor and their staff about breastfeeding.
- Talk to a certified lactation consultant. They’re available to work with you at many OB/GYN offices and clinics.
- Talk to your partner and your family support system about your decision to breastfeed and the kind of support you’ll need from them.
- Find out if there are Black Breastfeeding Clubs that are available to you.
- Find a Facebook support group for Black breastfeeding mothers.
- Find women in your circle of family and friends who have breastfed their babies that you can call for support.
- Talk to your employer about what supports are available to you when you return to work. Will you be able to take breaks to pump your milk? Is there a way to refrigerate the milk, or will you be allowed to bring in a cooler?
- Make sure you talk to and work out a plan with your daycare provider regarding giving your baby breast milk over formula.
- Reach out to organizations like the Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association (BMBFA) to find support.