Barriers to breastfeeding persist for Black parents. But in reclaiming this sacred act, we pave a path of support for generations to come.

What do you remember about your first breastfeeding moments? How did it feel to latch your little one? Who was there to witness you in that moment and did you feel supported? Who were your breastfeeding role models?

These are the questions I often ask new families navigating the uncharted waters of new parenthood. They’re the same questions I ask our global community of birth workers at Mama Glow. Often, they’re seeking to understand their own complex experiences around birth and the postpartum period.

We know that breastfeeding provides more than just milk; it’s been described as “liquid love.” Breastfeeding and our breastfeeding stories are a part of who we are.

Breastfeeding is a multisensory experience that helps to calm, soothe and reduce stress in both parent and baby. It increases the development of essential neural pathways, which accelerate brain development. It also increases oxytocin production, which creates a sense of well-being, warmth and facilities bonding.

Black people face unique challenges when it comes to feeding our children. Every August, Black Breastfeeding Week takes place and is a way to bring attention to these challenges. During this week we also celebrate triumphant stories and joy that can provide inspiration and healing to other Black parents on this journey. But the work of reclaiming Black breastfeeding continues well after the week is over.

People may ask, why do we need to address Black breastfeeding, specifically? What makes the Black breastfeeding experience unique?

Kimberly Seals Allers, co-founder of Black Breastfeeding Week states, “Breastfeeding is our symbol to the world that I will make my best effort to commit to giving my baby the best first food possible, despite my circumstances. It is our statement that our babies matter.”

Black birthing people face so many barriers to breastfeeding success, including:

  • lack of peer support and encouragement
  • lack of education and instruction
  • aggressive marketing from formula companies
  • less access to culturally competent lactation consultants
  • lack of community support
  • policy gaps like lack of federal paid family leave

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the rates for exclusive breastfeeding at age 3 months were 36 percent among Black infants and 53 percent among white infants. At age 6 months, the rates were 17.2 percent among Black infants and 29.5 percent among white infants.

Also according to the CDC, Black women typically return to work earlier than women in other racial and ethnic groups. They’re more likely to experience logistical challenges with breastfeeding and expressing milk, such as their work schedules or inadequate pumping environments.

The disparities in breastfeeding initiation and duration are real and are rooted in a deep history of racial trauma. Breastfeeding reminds us of our fraught history in this nation, when Black women were once considered valuable property during chattel slavery.

White women were instrumental in slave market transactions, particularly when it came to purchasing enslaved wet nurses for their breastfeeding and the care they provided to white children.

After labor, white women would recover while enslaved wet nurses would attend to and feed their young. This sector of the slave market positioned “Black milk” as highly valuable — a message crafted exclusively for the benefit of white women.

Black women, whose milk sustained white babies, were considered even more valuable property because of the commodification of their bodies. Not only were enslaved Black women ripped apart from their families and sold on auction blocks, they were raped, physically abused, then forced to nurse the young babies of the slave master.

Often their own babies went malnourished because the majority of their milk was dedicated to nursing the slave owner’s young. The reproductive violence that was perpetuated against enslaved Black women is bound in ancestral trauma, passed down generationally and is directly correlated with the breastfeeding rates we see today amongst Black birthing people.

Black women have historically had to take care of everyone else at the expense of ourselves. There are gaps in wisdom where we should have inherent knowledge — breastfeeding education wasn’t passed down because doing so meant reliving trauma.

Breastfeeding allows us to reclaim a sacred act of nourishment and protection, in a way that our ancestors could not. It allows us to heal wounds that our foremothers carry. In a society where breastfeeding and Black parenting is constantly undermined, we need all the support we can get to keep going.

All Black birthing people should have the access to quality and culturally competent care, regardless of income, location or insurance. They should have access to education and support groups during the perinatal period to help encourage breastfeeding success.

Modeling breastfeeding for generations to come is a gift. It preserves a natural biological process that is no longer instinctive. When a Black parent chooses to breastfeed, it’s a choice to change the course of history.

So… what is your breastfeeding story?

Sharing your story in a safe community space can facilitate healing. Asking about how you were fed as an infant can give you insight. Learning about our foremothers might inspire you to adopt some of the ways of the past. In doing so, you are paving a path of support and healing for all of us.

Named one of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100, celebrity doula and maternal wellness expert Latham Thomas supports women in embracing optimal wellness and spiritual growth as a pathway to empowerment. Latham is leading a revolution in radical self-care, guiding women everywhere to “mother themselves first.” Latham is the founder of Mama Glow, a global women’s health and education brand serving women along the childbearing continuum. Mama Glow supports women and families during the fertility period, pregnancy, birth as well as during postpartum, offering hand-holding through their bespoke doula services. Her book “Own Your Glow: A Soulful Guide to Luminous Living and Crowning the Queen Within” (Hay House) was released in paperback in 2020.