This week, a coalition of parents, pediatricians, and advocates converged on social media and in hospitals and community centers across the United States as part of what’s known as Black Breastfeeding Week.
Though black mothers showed significant gains in breastfeeding within less than ten years, lactation advocates say there’s much work left to be done in shedding light on recent improvements, debunking misconceptions, and combating institutional forces that preclude women of color from bonding naturally with their babies. As of 2013, black mothers lag behind their white and Hispanic counterparts in the practice by at least 20 percentage points.
The annual event, now in its third year, allows black women to connect, share stories of their experiences, take health care providers to task, and challenge a whitewashed narrative about breastfeeding. This weekend, organizers will wrap up activities with a national “Lift Every Baby” event during which mothers raise their young ones toward the sky as a “symbol of their commitment to ensuring their babies have a healthy start.”
“Black Breastfeeding Week allows us to be a part of the culture shift,” Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, one of three mothers who founded Black Breastfeeding Week, told ThinkProgress. “Even if it draws people to our discussion, the message about breastfeeding disparities doesn’t motivate black women.”
Sangodele-Ayoka said Black Breastfeeding Week allows mothers to connect this issue with other health topics, like food justice, and help employees at community clinics have a culturally competent approach to lactation counseling.
“Breastfeeding is part of our history and culture and we know it ensures our children have the best start in life. In previous years, it was unheard of for outlets like Ebony or Essence to talk about breastfeeding as it relates to social justice. Now they’re engaged. Ebony has hosted Twitter conversations with us and the Essence Fest had a lactation station this year,” Sangodele-Ayoka, who’s also a nurse and midwifery student at Yale University, said.
Breastfeeding poses many benefits for black families who already face a number of health disparities. For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that children who breastfeed for up to a year lower their risk of juvenile diabetes, sclerosis, heart disease, and cancer. Breast milk also contains Vitamin D, which strengthens bones. Additionally, studies have found significant mental health benefits for mothers and babies who share that intimate moment, particularly with the release of hormones that promote motherly behaviors. Newborn children may also gain reassurance that they’re in a protective environment, a feeling that positively affects their development.
But some black mothers, especially those living in low-income neighborhoods, either haven’t been getting that message or haven’t been eager to take heed, citing a lack of role models in their family and a relatively steep learning curve.
Experts say the legacy of wet-nursing — a practice made popular during the antebellum era when enslaved black women would nurse their master’s newborn children — may be a key reason that black women are reluctant to breastfeed.
But the issue may be more nuanced than that, due in part to the profit-driven collusion between community hospitals and baby formula companies that compels hospitals to exclusively encourage use of formula to expectant mothers. This partnership has proven lucrative for formula producers. As a whole, mothers obtain more than half of the baby formula in the United States through the Women, Infant, and Children program at no cost.
Women in underdeveloped countries are also subject to these aggressive marketing practices, often feeding their newborns infant formula prepared with unsafe water, as discovered in the 1970s when allegations surfaced of the Nestle Corporation’s use of such tactics abroad.
Decades later, some health care providers haven’t discouraged poor mothers in the United States from using the artificial substance. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year, for example, found that hospitals in neighborhoods with an above-average population of black people promoted nursing at a rate 15 percentage points lower than facilities located in more affluent areas.
Mimi Poinsett, MD, a Northern California-based pediatrician of more than 20 years and Black Breastfeeding Week participant, says improving upon recent gains require raising awareness of the infant formula industry’s exploitative advertising. She said she did her part this week, calling out health care providers who haven’t been diligent in telling mothers to nurse their babies.
“We need to be conscious about how these companies are pushing their products on us. We’ve been subjected to formula advertising,” Poinsett told ThinkProgress. “We don’t think about the costs of breastfeeding versus the costs of formula. We not only see healthier babies but women take less time off of work because their children aren’t sick. That means lower health care costs and greater work productivity. So it’s not beneficial to just babies. It’s sustainable and environmentally friendly. In a high-income country like the United States, we need to encourage breastfeeding.”
Changing the tide would also require challenging attitudes about black women’s bodies, which feminists say are often seen as objects of the male gaze rather than temples for children. Last year, a woman named Karlesha Thurman received backlash when she posted a photo of her breastfeeding her infant during her graduation. That episode sparked conversation about how to better destigmatize breastfeeding in the black community.
Some men have even chimed in, offering their support creatively and making the black breastfeeding movement a family affair. In 2011, community activist and breastfeeding proponent V. Kuroji Patrick co-published and illustrated “This Milk Tastes Good! A Breastfeeding Rhyme,” a book featuring an African American family. In June, mothers praised hip-hop artist George Moss when he posted a photo in which he’s washing his wife’s breast pumps.
Nicole Sandiford, head of Black Women Do Breastfeed, a blog turned advocacy organization, says familial support is essential to creating an environment where black women can breastfeed. Reflecting on her experiences with her husband, Sandiford, a mother of two boys, stressed the importance of challenging persistent myths about breastfeeding.
“One critical thing breastfeeding moms need is support and education that helps them find solutions to those breastfeeding challenges,” Sandiford told ThinkProgress. “It’s very easy to give up. I was lucky to not have a difficult experience because I made an effort to learn and I had the support in my home. I also had friends who were breastfeeding moms.””
Since its 2013 inception, Black Breastfeeding Week has grown as a force in the lactation advocacy space. Sponsors for this year’s festivities include Free to Breastfeed, the Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association, and Mocha Manual. While some public establishments have become more accommodating of nursing mothers, Sangodele-Ayoka said employment laws have to change so that working mothers, no matter income level, can balance their obligations without shortchanging their newborn.
“I would definitely love to see more support for women and families. The ideal policy would include paid family leave for at least nine months after birth,” she said. “It’s crucial to include economic factors for families attempting to breastfeed. That’s a bond you don’t want to break. There’s already evidence that this works. Statewide paid leave has existed for more than a decade in California and studies have shown that families increase the duration of time breastfeeding by four weeks for both low-income and high-income earning mothers.”