Breastfeeding, WIC, and the Black Community

Yesterday I addressed the disparities and some of the challenges black women face in breastfeeding their children. Today I’d like to talk about the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, and its role in supporting black mothers in healthy feeding practices for their infants.

Did you know that many women have the option of using the WIC program to help get infant formula and even food for themselves, both during and after their pregnancies? In most places, this state-run program is available until a child turns 5, and can be very helpful. Now women, including minorities like black women, can set themselves up to not only get a little milk and certain foods for themselves monthly, but they can ALSO get all the formula they need for their babies. No need to breastfeed…right?

WRONG! Now let me be straight up – this program is a godsend to new moms! But there are expectations of the program of the moms who use it.

What most women are not aware of is that WIC was meant to be a supplementary program to BREASTFEEDING…which explains why many black mothers using WIC who I encounter complain that WIC doesn’t give them enough formula for the month. They’re absolutely right – it doesn’t provide enough – because it’s not meant to replace breastfeeding! As we saw in my post yesterday, this can pose some cultural challenges for some of the black mothers using WIC, since the breastfeeding rate in African Americans is less than 60% where the rate for other races is generally 15-20% higher.

Beyond that, what some mothers also don’t know that the WIC counselors will give you a MUCH larger food package if you are SOLELY breastfeeding, and will assist by providing Breastfeeding Peer Counselors during visits. This again, would have a higher impact on the ability for black mothers vs. other mothers to get food for their children, since their chances of exclusive breastfeeding are again, lower than that of their WIC peers.

To give you a real-time example, I spent some time working as a lactation counselor in my local WIC office (I’m also an RN), and I was the last stop before the mothers picked up their checks. I had an opportunity to chat with them, and most had just given birth or were just says from giving birth, so I asked how they felt about starting to nurse, since I also make house visits to assist with breastfeeding issues.

In my experience, I OVERWHELMINGLY found that the African American moms seemed content with their decisions not to nurse, not only because their mothers had told them they would not babysit if breastfeeding occurred due to “spoiling the baby,” but they, like many of their family members, saw the ability to formula feed as a sign of affluence, which draws back to my post yesterday regarding the legacy of slavery and wet nurses.

Assuming that their formula needs would be met, many of these women returned to WIC within weeks, upset that they had to pay cash for cans of formula, or upset that their baby’s formula had to be changed multiple times due to allergies or intolerance. And I had to gently remind moms of what I had told them the month before: WIC’s formula program is a supplementary program only.

I had a mother tell me, “”I should have tried to breastfeed. You tried to tell me.”

My response? “I am NEVER against formula. A fed baby is the best baby. But, my goal is to help new moms reach WHATEVER feeding goals they’ve set for their families.”

And I do. I support ALL moms. I am a HUGE breastfeeding advocate! But I’m also a HUGE advocate of not making moms feel inadequate for their feeding choices!
Since most of my works has been in dealing with these disparities in the black community, I have found that many black women actually wanted to breastfeed all along, but were discouraged or convinced otherwise by well-meaning family AND healthcare professionals. Or they tried once, had a bad experience, and no nurse or lactation specialist bothered to further investigate the reasons for her apprehension before starting formula, leaving this poor woman feeling like her body failed her. What are we going to do to help fix these issues? How do we make things more even for EVERY new mom and make sure the cultural issues are addressed as part of their lactation support?

First, more diversity and support for black moms in the lactation field is absolutely needed.

Second, in order for women who utilize WIC services to reach whatever their breastfeeding goals are, first they are going to have to be very honest with themselves and their loved ones about how they TRULY want to feed their children, as early in the pregnancy as possible so they can start working on those “old school” mentalities BEFORE baby gets there.

Third, we need to get mothers who plan to start at WIC in to speak to the breastfeeding peer counselors as soon as they have a proof of pregnancy, for education! And it wouldn’t hurt to bring 1 or 2 of their naysayers to speak with the breastfeeding peer counselors, as well. Often these counselors often offer classes on breastfeeding outside of the WIC office for free for families to participate in. Because when minorities, namely black women feel that a couple, or even just one of the important elders in their lives supports what they’re trying to do, it becomes MUCH easier for them to work towards their goals.

And finally, start the breastfeeding process with clarity once you’re in the hospital. Mothers need to tell their nurses and doctors of their intentions to breastfeed right away, and get the help that they need before they leave! Be persistent and ask and ask until you feel confident that you can do it. Those first few days are crucial if breastfeeding is their true goal. The bottom line for my black mamas is, the more familial and expert support they receive, the more successful they’ll be!

Happy feeding, mommies!!

Ashley2Ashley Russell is a Registered Nurse and Certified Lactation Counselor, who lives and works in Florida with her beautiful family.

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