The effects of racial inequality stems from 400 years of oppression and systemic racism, which also contributes to the Black maternal health crisis, poor infant health outcomes and lower breastfeeding rates within the Black community.
And when it comes to breastfeeding, common struggles such as securing a proper latch, nipple soreness and low milk supply occur for all races. But for Black breastfeeding mothers, there is an additional set of struggles that are often overlooked.
While it's only a start, Black Breastfeeding Week can be an equalizer, bringing attention to the challenges Black women face while promoting the fact that Black women do, in fact, breastfeed.
Here are 4 breastfeeding challenges Black mothers face and what we can start doing today to initiate a positive change:
1. Lack of prenatal support
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black mothers are four times more likely to die during and after pregnancy. In fact, a study from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine proved that healthcare providers often assume that Black patients are overreacting when raising issues regarding pain, discomfort and other difficulties.
The nonchalant outlook regarding the health concerns of Black women can lead to the common assumption that Black mothers do not breastfeed. As a result, the breastfeeding education that expectant Black mothers should receive is often left out of the prenatal care plan.
How Black Breastfeeding Week helps: It encourages increased integration of prenatal breastfeeding education. By raising awareness of the racial disparities experienced by the Black community, this week can motivate healthcare workers to place a greater emphasis on promoting and encouraging breastfeeding to their Black expectant mothers.
2. Lack of postpartum breastfeeding support
After giving birth it is common for new mothers to receive assistance with latching, education regarding the benefits of breastfeeding, and a visit from a lactation consultant. But for Black mothers, this experience may be very different. In fact, a study indicated that hospitals located in areas with a higher percentage of Black residents were less likely to provide adequate breastfeeding support. Additionally, Black infants are more likely to be formula fed in the hospital than other races.
Compared to white mothers, researchers at Northshore University reported that Black mothers were significantly more likely to be encouraged to formula feed. Early initiation of formula feeding without necessity can reduce the likelihood of long-term breastfeeding success.
How Black Breastfeeding Week helps: This week draws attention to this discrepancy, thus reminding birth workers that Black mothers DO breastfeed and that, with proper education and support, the breastfeeding rates among the Black community will improve.
3. Lack of support within the Black community
In addition to the uncomfortable stares nursing mothers may get while breastfeeding in public, Black breastfeeding women also have to deal with stigmas within their own community. These stigmas stem from the historical trauma of being forced to wet nurse babies of their slave owners, which often led to the neglect and inability to nurse their own children. Because of this, breastfeeding is not normalized within Black families or the Black community.
How Black Breastfeeding Week helps: With a focus on normalizing and celebrating breastfeeding in public, this awareness can help to eliminate the stigma of breastfeeding within the Black community. When more of the Black community see their peers proudly nursing their babies in public, it will break the generational belief that "breastfeeding is only for white women."
4. Lack of support within the breastfeeding community
Of the 34,069 International Board Certified Lactation Consultants worldwide, very few of them are African American. Black mothers often find it easier to discuss their breastfeeding struggles with someone that understands the disparities and cultural issues they may face. Additionally, the majority of advertisements depicting breastfeeding mothers do not feature Black women. Without role models and supporters that look like them, it is unlikely that Black mothers will strive to breastfeed since it is not promoted within their community.
How Black Breastfeeding Week helps: While this is an unfortunate truth, Black Breastfeeding Week seeks to encourage Black women to become lactation consultants by pointing out the lack of diversity within the lactation community. It also highlights the amazing Black lactation consultants available that act as role models for aspiring Black breastfeeding supporters.
Here's how you can make a difference:
These struggles have led to a lower percentage of breastfeeding Black mothers when compared to other races, however, with raised awareness by the CDC and campaigns like Black Breastfeeding Week, the statistics are improving. In 2015, only 64.3% of black infants were breastfed. This recent CDC breastfeeding statistic report shows that there was a 10% increase in breastfeeding of Black infants.
With increased prenatal and postpartum support (regardless of your race), more access to resources, and added representation of both Black breastfeeding mothers and Black lactation professionals, these statistics will continue to improve, resulting in healthier communities everywhere.
Here are three actionable ways you can support Black Breastfeeding Week right now:
- Write to your government officials and tell them why they should celebrate and promote Black Breastfeeding Week in your city/state.
- Share articles like this on social media to help your friends, family and the rest of the world learn about why this week is necessary.
- Like and share images of Black breastfeeding women on your social media channels. Black representation matters and your support just might encourage a mother to breastfeed.
A version of this post was published August 25, 2020. It has been updated.