*Denotes name change
The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous. Not only does it lower an infants’ risk of asthma, ear infections, sudden infant death syndrome and obesity, it also lowers the mother’s risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and breast and ovarian cancer. Despite the plethora of known positives, breastfeeding hasn’t always been celebrated and encouraged especially amongst Black women.
The disparity between Black and white women breastfeeding has been a staple in the motherhood community for decades. Many reports have shown that during a Black woman’s pregnancy, the education surrounding breastfeeding is little to none. Countless studies have been conducted to highlight the root causes of this discrepancy.
In recent years, the talk around breastfeeding has begun to shift in a more affirmative direction. There has been more championing of the practice, more discussion around public accommodations and more understanding of the needs of women during this time. Even with the change of the winds, Black mothers, especially those birthing children for the first time, still find themselves at a disadvantage.
Current data sheds light on where we are as a society. At birth, 83 percent of white women initiated breastfeeding to their babies compared to 69 percent of Black women. Various reasons are cited for the large gap. They include:
- In hospital maternity wards where large Black populations are served, staff is less likely to help Black mothers introduce breastfeeding after birth or provide lactation support. Instead, mothers are offered formula as a substitute.
- Lack of flexibility, stability and conducive benefits at work such as paid family leave.
- Inequities in healthcare access.
- Historical oversexualization of Black women’s bodies.
- Inadequate education about benefits of breastfeeding.
For *Nicole, these reasons aren’t surprising. At 40, she recently became a mother. Having had access to educational tools, great healthcare and various networks, Nicole felt prepared for the journey. However, she didn’t enter with a lot of knowledge passed down from Black women she knew.
“Prior to having my baby, I didn’t know many women who breastfed. I remember when I was working on my master’s degree, one of my classmates was a big advocate on educating Black women around breastfeeding. Since then, my interest has peaked. I didn’t have any resources specifically pertaining to Black women. However, I did speak with a woman who shared her experience and told me about La Leche League. This became my number one resource while I was pregnant and even afterward.”
It was important to Nicole to find a community who understood her path although she wasn’t sure where she would find it. Before giving birth, she began to encounter Black women at her job who had chosen the same path. They provided in-depth details about the rewards and difficulties. Hearing their stories, she was determined to cultivate a different experience.
*Joya, 29, had the same goal in mind after birthing her first child in 2020. Finding a support system before her child arrived was arduous. Referring to the topic as “taboo” in the Black community, she relied on books to prepare her for the life-changing experience. After her child was born, she was able to connect with other Black breastfeeding mothers thanks to the power of the Internet.
“Social Media became a huge resource,” noted Joya. “I joined Black breastfeeding support groups on Facebook. It was so much education! The group included midwives, doulas, lactation consultants and a variety of other professionals to help me through the process. Mothers would share their experiences – the ups and downs.”
With high hopes, both Nicole and Joya entered the space with smooth sailing expectations. Quickly, their optimism faded. As they faced a world that included latching difficulties, cluster feeding, sleep deprivation, frustration, over sexualization of Black women’s bodies and COVID-19, both women had to become steadfast in their refusal to give up on breastfeeding.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for Black women to end their breastfeeding journey before three months. A variety of factors enter the equation as it pertains to why this is common. Black women are:
- Likely to be the primary economic support for their family which creates a pressure for them to get back to work as soon as possible
- Likely to have low-wage employers that fail to provide a private location to nurse and break time as deemed by law under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
- Likely to have Medicaid; the failure to expand it in certain states has an adverse effect on Black women’s maternal health
“I grew up in a working, middle class family,” explained Nicole who is a Higher Education Administrator. “In lower class and working households, I don’t often hear conversations about breastfeeding and that could be for many reasons. Government subsidies such as WIC are often offered for the lower class without a lot of conversations around breastfeeding. If women have jobs that aren’t accommodating, hourly positions where they cannot miss work, in need of sufficient rest or cannot constantly take breaks to pump, breastfeeding wouldn’t be practical. Unfortunately, I believe that’s why a lot of Black women, especially those who are low income or working class, don’t because we don’t accommodate it.”
While neither woman was subjected to hassle on their jobs and each had supervisors who created a culture of understanding and support, they had differing opinions about the country’s embracement of breastfeeding.
“Society is doing a good job accommodating mothers,” said Joya, a substance abuse counselor. “We have a long way to go but progression is happening. I’ve noticed hotels don’t typically have nursing areas. I’ve gone to seminars where I would have to pump in my car. I purchased a car charger specially for my pump. My husband was always very supportive making sure I had a place to pump. He would speak up if he sensed any anxiety from me.”
Nicole shared an opposing view.
“Because of the pandemic there haven’t been many occasions where I’ve been out in public and I couldn’t easily go home and breastfeed. However, because my body produces milk based on my baby’s schedule I recall being at a graduation and feeling my breasts fill up. I had to leave. I’ve nursed in the car more times than I would like to admit. Unfortunately, there aren’t many places that are accommodating and I definitely don’t think women should have to use public restrooms to nurse although sometimes that’s the only option.”
Both agree about the oversexualization of Black women breastfeeding.
“Unfortunately, there is a stigma with Black mothers breastfeeding,” expressed Joya. “Black women are sexualized, often judged by our figure and people can’t see past that. My experience in my own community is the disconnect with the older generations who push formula on mothers. There isn’t anything wrong with formula. I’ve used both but God made us to be able to feed our children so the stigma that breast milk isn’t enough is sad.”
Nicole added, “We look at breasts as sex symbols and not as a means to nurture our children. For that reason, breastfeeding, in general, is stigmatized. People think breastfeeding is nasty or weird when it’s very natural. Women who choose to nurse publicly are often ostracized. If they were feeding their baby with a bottle, they wouldn’t face the same level of stigmatism. Again, we have an over sexualized culture where breastfeeding hasn’t been normalized.”
In May, Joya’s breastfeeding journey ended at 13 months. Nicole continues to breastfeed her child at eight months. Both mothers had a goal to get the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended target of six months. To get beyond it was empowering for them.
“Breastfeeding is a huge accomplishment. Mommy guilt is real. At three weeks, I just knew the journey was over. At six months, I couldn’t believe I was still going.”
Now that they both have experience, they want to share their knowledge with others to provide them with the support they felt they were lacking, initially.
“Recently, the company [Milky Mama] I ordered my lactation supplements from shared they were giving scholarships to Black women to become lactation consultants because they represent such a small portion of the industry,” shared Nicole. “I believe if Black women saw more women like themselves in organizations that advocated for breastfeeding then we would be better off. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are enough publicized resources for Black women. Now that I’ve experienced this, I would love to help another Black woman along in her journey.”
Joya wrapped up her thoughts saying, “My hope is that this topic becomes less taboo, support is provided and accommodations are made across the board. If I could give any advice it would be to find your support group and always give yourself grace!“