Black mothers have lagged behind white mothers in breastfeeding for decades. Now a recent U.S. government study suggests that key differences in maternity services at hospitals may be a factor in the widening disparity.
The study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found that hospitals in neighborhoods with an above-average population of black people promoted nursing at a rate nearly 15 percentage points lower than hospitals located in other neighborhoods. Manufacturers of baby formula also had more success in distributing their products in facilities that had a strong minority patient base. Researchers examined data from 2,600 medical facilities, the U.S. Census, and the 2011 U.S. survey on maternity practices in infant care and nutrition.
“Hospital practices during childbirth have a major impact on whether a mother is able to start and continue breastfeeding,” the study’s authors noted in a press release. “These findings suggest there are racial disparities in access to maternity care practices known to support breastfeeding. This observation could provide insight into the reasons for the persistent gap in breastfeeding rates between black and white babies in the United States.”
The U.S. Office on Women’s Health says that breastfeeding provides infants with the vital antibodies and nutrients needed to stave off illnesses. Breast milk also contains Vitamin D, a nutrient that builds strong bones. Breastfeeding lowers a woman’s risk of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer and assists in the loss of weight gained during pregnancy. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers nurse for up to a year to ensure that their little ones gain long-term health benefits that include a lower risk of juvenile diabetes, sclerosis, heart diseases, and cancer.
But African-American women — many of whom don’t receive traditional healthcare services — are more likely to not know about breastfeeding’s health benefits. Many black mothers also have jobs that don’t allow the flexibility needed to nurse. Additionally, many women of color may not have models of breastfeeding whom they can follow. Stepping into this unknown world can be intimidating for some women, especially those who hear loved ones characterize breastfeeding as “nasty” or “painful.”
History might also share some blame in the disparities that the CDC reports. Experts often point to the traumatic legacy of slavery in the United States as a key factor in many African-American women’s reluctance to breastfeed. Throughout the duration of the American slave trade, black women often nursed their slave masters’ children. The practice even continued in the decades after Reconstruction. When baby formula first hit the market in the 1930s, it became a status symbol for people of color, compelling many black mothers to shy away from the more natural method of feeding their infant.
While the CDC reports that breastfeeding among women of color has increased in the last decade, experts say that there’s much more work to be done. The Surgeon General issued a Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding in 2011 that appealed for programs that provide mother-to-mother support and peer counseling; methods that have been proven to improve breastfeeding rates among all women. Nurses have also received training to provide breastfeeding support as part of an effort to make hospitals more “baby-friendly.”
Many black mothers have also taken matters into their own hands, launching organizations that aim to make breastfeeding less of a taboo subject. The African-American Breastfeeding Network (AABN), for example, has armed expectant African-American mothers with accurate information about breastfeeding since its 2008 inception. Next month, the Milwaukee-based nonprofit plans to host an event during which guests will learn how to safely partake in the bonding activity. The hosts will also guide expectant fathers in maintaining a breastfeeding schedule and creating a healthy environment for their children.
Another nonprofit organization by the name of the Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association (BMBA) aims to increase nursing rates among women of color by teaching cultural competence to public health workers, hosting gatherings for breastfeeding mothers, and connecting expectant mothers with services they can use long after childbirth. As BMBA’s founding executive director Kiddada Green explains in a video on the nonprofit’s website, breastfeeding is an activity that African-American women should enjoy because it gives their child a healthy start in life and it brings families closer.
“I had a great experience breastfeeding my child,” said Green. “It’s not something that’s shunned. It’s important [that mothers] not feel isolated. I want people to realize there’s a reward for breastfeeding your child that [comes in the form of] the relationship you build and the lifetime benefits. It’s even setting the standard for what black motherhood should be.”