We are halfway through Black Breastfeeding Week, and I’ve learned since my last post to expect MANY eye rolls from those who don’t get the mission of having a week dedicated to supporting breastfeeding in African-American communities. But, as we’ve seen on the news, the black community needs support. #BlackLivesMatter – and Black Breastfeeding Week matters too. We HAVE to reach some level of understanding of the issues many of us face in our community, and that includes everyone’s issues – even those issues that are more prevalent in one subsection of the community than another.
Let’s quickly review from last year. This week is important for us because there is STILL a large disparity between African Americans and groups of other races and ethnicities when it comes to breastfeeding. According to the CDC, 58.9% of black women have ever breastfed, compared to 75.2% of their white and 80% of their Hispanic counterparts. That’s a huge gap!
It’s caused by many things; disparities in household income, wealth, and access to health care and support, where the gaps between black families and non-black families are large, and also largely stagnant. It’s also not at all helped by the lack of diversity in the lactation field, which I addressed in my post, which you may have seen earlier this week.
One thing we don’t talk about as much is that the disparity is also culturally connected to the terrible legacy of slavery in this country, where African American women served as wet nurses for their owner’s infants (breastfeeding another woman’s child). I didn’t really understand this until I entered into the field of supporting moms and babies as a Registered Nurse and Certified Lactation Counselor.
It breaks my heart that this pain continues throughout our generations. I have a photo (that I will respectfully not post here) of a woman wet nursing her owner’s baby, and the impact of that “tradition” is not lost on me nor anyone else, who understands the tragedy of the loss of that woman’s autonomy. Or why images like that, and stories like that are passed down through our grandmothers, aunts, godmothers, mothers, and sisters as a reason not to nurse.
Any woman could understand that if the idea and practice of nursing is linked to oppression in any way for a mother, breastfeeding would lead to nothing but emotional turmoil. None of us can blame black mothers who may be apprehensive for this reason. It is imperative that a woman feels empowered in choices related to her well-being and her child’s as well.
And while I am a HUGE breastfeeding advocate, I am a HUGE advocate of not making moms feel inadequate for their feeding choices! So, I do my best to educate and support mothers in taking on breastfeeding for what it can provide, since it has many benefits.
Breastfeeding, if a mother has enough breast milk, is an excellent start for a newborn, as it can pass on vital immunity to a child in the simplest, most accessible form of nutrition available. No matter what race a newborn, breastfeeding, if you can do it, is a wonderful option, and I urge moms to at least consider it first before considering switching to clinically safe formula options.
In my experience, I have found many black women WANTED to breastfeed all along, but were discouraged or convinced otherwise by well-meaning family AND healthcare professionals. Tomorrow I’ll address that further, and also discuss some of the challenges black mothers encounter when they apply for support through programs like WIC.
Ashley Russell is a Registered Nurse and Certified Lactation Counselor, who lives and works in Florida with her beautiful family.