For Black mothers, breastfeeding is about more than just nutrition. It’s about reclaiming an ancestral rite.
“If you insist on breastfeeding, you need to relax because he can sense your stress. Otherwise, give him a bottle and let that milk dry up.”
These were the words my mother spoke as I sat in the nursery I created for my son. He was only days old, cradled in my arms, and I looked at him with tears in my eyes.
I was desperately trying to get him to latch, eat, and gain weight. I needed him to take his first pee and poop, and nothing was working. My breasts ached. I was tired and frustrated and thought I was starving my child.
I felt like a failure.
In that moment, I would not have believed you if you’d told me I would go on to successfully breastfeed my son for 18 months. In that moment, it would have been much easier to follow the latter half of my mother’s advice and give up on the entire notion of nursing.
I told myself: I wasn’t breastfed and I turned out fine. Right?
I had formula ready and waiting in the kitchen cabinet — I’d kept those freebie bags you get at baby stores when you walk in and announce you’re pregnant. Yet something in me wanted to keep trying to breastfeed.
It would have been easy for me to give up, but choosing to stay the course with breastfeeding was more than just a nutritional consideration.
For generations, there has been a disconnect between Black mothers and the act of breastfeeding.
Formula is easy and convenient, whereas breastfeeding can be a big challenge in those first few days of life — both for a new mom and a new baby. For Black mothers, formula may not only be an easy or convenient choice, but one of necessity, as some Black mothers aren’t in jobs or careers that allow the flexibility breastfeeding requires.
History tells us of the insidious targeting of Black mothers by formula companies, with complicit financial support of the federal government through the USDA.
Then there’s the legacy of slavery to contend with.
Black mothers were forced to nurse the children of their enslavers over and above their own babies, breaking the sacred bond between mother and child. This cultural trauma only exacerbates the disconnect between Black mothers and breastfeeding.
For me, breastfeeding was the convenient choice — namely because it was free. Therefore, I struggled through those first few weeks and spent days on the phone trying to get through to the lactation consultant at my pediatrician’s office.
I added a 4-ounce bottle of formula to my son’s daily diet, in addition to the breast milk he received. We supplemented for his first month of life until his weight was no longer a worry and I could breastfeed exclusively.
The fact that I had to supplement his diet with formula in the first place still makes me feel a degree of shame. It made me feel as if somehow I was lacking as a mother and as a woman — that I couldn’t successfully breastfeed my child from the moment he began to draw breath.
But in telling this story I have to acknowledge my own privilege, which allowed my breastfeeding journey to be a successful one compared to many other Black mothers.
I live in a suburban subdivision in Jacksonville, Florida, on the “good” side of town. I am less than 5 miles from one of the newest hospitals in the city. Built in 2005, the hospital where I delivered has a state of the art maternity ward.
From the moment I began going for regular OB visits during my pregnancy, breastfeeding was encouraged by my doctors and nurses. The majority of them didn’t look like me. Most of my neighbors do not look like me. The doctors, nurses, and the majority of the patients at the pediatrician’s office where I take my son do not look like us.
Therefore, I can say with a degree of confidence that the treatment and support I received when it comes to initiating my breastfeeding journey — while it should be normalized — is probably not the norm. Especially for some other Black mothers.
While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends mothers breastfeed their children for at least 6 months, Black mothers may not be able to do so because of the demands of returning to the workforce.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, more than 80 percent of Black mothers provide the main source of income for their families, and they experience discrimination on the job at much higher rates than their white counterparts. This doesn’t exactly make it easy to request accommodations for nursing or pumping.
I was fortunate enough in my career as a TV news producer to work for a company that had a stated maternity leave policy. I received 6 weeks of paid leave and then took an additional 6 weeks through the Family Medical Leave Act.
When I returned to work, I returned carrying a tote bag with a breast pump, committed to continuing my breastfeeding journey.
Because I worked from 1 to 9 a.m. on the morning shift, I would nurse my son before going to work. At 8 a.m., after my morning show aired, I would take my tote bag to the private bathroom and pump.
When the outlet stopped working in the private bathroom, I took over the anchors’ dressing and makeup room. Because that room didn’t have a lock, I put a sign on the door that read “Do Not Disturb.”
I neither asked for permission for these liberties nor did I realize there was a law in place that secured them for me. However, this too was a privilege.
Executive director for Atlanta-based Pea Pod Nutrition and Lactation Support, Alicia Simpson MS, RD, IBCLC, LD, said when it comes to the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law, reality is generally much different than what the law says.
“If you just had a baby and now you’ve gone back to work, you likely need the money to be there and so you don’t want to fight with your employer about that space,” Simpson said. “So if they give you pushback, then you really have to choose putting food on the table and a roof over your head.”
Shelter and food are two of the most basic needs in life. They’re necessities that are prioritized above and beyond breastfeeding — especially when formula is readily available and marketed to be just as good or even better than breast milk.
“I have actually seen a breastfeeding pamphlet from a formula company and in the middle of it, it said, ‘Around 2 to 3 months most moms can’t really breastfeed full time anymore and this is the perfect time for formula,’ and I was like, you didn’t even [give] half the information there,” Simpson said.
Some of the information missing from the conversation advocating for formula over breast milk is that formula (which is often higher in sugar than breast milk) predisposes a child’s taste buds toward sugar and that
Tambra Raye Stevenson, the founder of Women Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics & Agriculture in Washington, D.C., said breastfeeding is an investment in the long-term health of a child against chronic conditions.
“[In] the critical window — the first 1,000 days of life — [breastfeeding] is a double-digit return on investment and [it’s] non-reversible,” Stevenson said.
Simpson agrees that breastfeeding not only benefits the long-term health of children, but of their mothers, too.
She said, “We have countless studies of lower rates of obesity in parents, lower rates of diabetes, and osteoporosis. Breast and ovarian cancer risks are lower… the lists just continues on.”
There’s already a well-documented health crisis when it comes to Black maternal health.
Black mothers under 30 are
These health crises then extend (and repeat) into adulthood.
This can be seen even now, as Black people are more likely to die from COVID-19, partially due to underlying health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. All of these conditions are linked to diet and nutrition — a foundation that may have been upended since birth.
“I think in this whole movement around Black Lives Matter there’s a great opportunity to talk about how [this starts with] the birth of a child and the nutrition that we give our children,” Stevenson said. “How does [Black Lives Matter influence] the policies and the practice of breastfeeding?”
In Simpson’s latest book, Boost Your Breast Milk, she discusses the role of nutrition in breastfeeding in an effort to help mothers take their power back.
“There’s all of these things, these barriers that are in the way, but there are some things that you can do to help nourish baby and nourish yourself,” Simpson said.
Despite the barriers to breastfeeding for any woman, white or Black, there’s a reason they’ve said in the past “breast is best” — be it your own, a wet nurse’s, or donations from a breast milk bank.
The benefits of breastfeeding a baby include a buffer against nearly a dozen diseases including:
- type 1 and type 2 diabetes
- childhood obesity
- respiratory tract infections
Those benefits also extend to mothers who breastfeed, as well as to the environment.
The AAP says: “[Breastfeeding] does not require the use of energy for manufacturing or create waste or air pollution,” thus reducing risk of contamination.
We all want what’s best for ourselves and our children, and breastfeeding provides that advantage from birth.
The 18 months when I nursed my son was about bonding with him and giving him the best head start I thought possible for his cognitive and physical development. It was as much about providing an opportunity as it was about saving money.
From that choice I have seen innumerable dividends.
At 5, he is smart, physically healthy, and super affectionate. The bond we began in his first months of life on Earth has yet to be broken.
Still, I know not every mother has this opportunity.
Black mothers are sometimes discouraged from taking advantage of the opportunity breastfeeding presents because of stereotypes, systemic racism, and oppression built into every aspect of our life in America.
Simpson, who’s the first woman to breastfeed a child in her family since slavery, believes that breastfeeding is part of the ancestral rite of Black women.
Stevenson, who’s descended from a Black woman named Henrietta who was enslaved and served as a wet nurse to 17 children on top of her 4 sons, knows that for Black mothers, breastfeeding is another act of social justice.
“It’s one thing for a Black mother to say I want to breastfeed and support my child,” Stevenson said. “It’s another thing to have an environment — whether it’s a working environment, a home environment, a community, as well as the media — to all share the same message that Black breastfeeding matters too.”
Nikesha Elise Williams is a two-time Emmy award-winning news producer and award-winning author. She was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, and attended The Florida State University where she graduated with a BS in communication: mass media studies and honors English creative writing. Nikesha’s debut novel, “Four Women,” was awarded the 2018 Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Award in the category of Adult Contemporary/Literary Fiction. “Four Women” was also recognized by the National Association of Black Journalists as an Outstanding Literary Work. Nikesha is a full-time writer and writing coach and has freelanced for several publications including VOX, Very Smart Brothas, and Shadow and Act. Nikesha lives in Jacksonville, Florida, but you can always find her online at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.