Racial Disparities Exist in Breastfeeding Rates for Black Moms

Raising awareness about the history of Black breastfeeding and the factors that contribute to low rates of Black mothers breastfeeding is an important way to close the gap.

A mom breastfeeds her child.
Photo: Yeyo Photography

I sat on the sofa crying silently between my mother and my fiancé. Tears spilled over my cheeks as we watched a movie and I held my newborn daughter. I was three days postpartum and my breasts were painfully engorged with milk. How was this happening? I had survived a med-free labor and delivery. This was supposed to be the easy part. Looking back nearly eight years ago at my breastfeeding journey, I always remember this day. I was a first-generation breastfeeder.

That day and many other days, I sat between people I loved the most and felt completely alone and isolated. My partner could not help me with breastfeeding because he was a man who had no experience around breastfeeding. My mother could not help me because she had not breastfed me or my brother. My friends could not help me because I was the only one in my friendship circle who had a baby. Like many Black millennial women, I was embarking on this journey alone.

Without the proper resources, my breastfeeding journey only lasted six months. I felt defeated. In fact, the statistics show that Black women are less likely to start breastfeeding than any other race of mother and even less likely to continue breastfeeding for six months. Only 69 percent of Black women initiate breastfeeding compared to 85 percent of white women. The question that is often asked after hearing statistics is why? There are many reasons. There are unfortunate events deeply connected to our race as a people: a history of wet nursing, oversexualization, lack of economic and familial support, are a few. For me, the question became how do we raise the numbers?

This is where Black Breastfeeding Week comes in. Black Breastfeeding Week is August 25 to 31, 2020, and is a campaign that has been part of National Breastfeeding Month for the past eight years. This year, through virtual events, Black mothers, lactation experts, and public health professionals have space to discuss their breastfeeding journeys, raise awareness, and explore public policies that address the disparities in statistics around Black maternal and infant care. Black Breastfeeding Week has become even more controversial this year because we are in a time where extreme emphasis has been placed upon race and it creates a space where white mothers feel isolated. White mothers are asking why Black women are choosing to segregate themselves, even down to the topic of breastfeeding.

As the creator of Black Moms Blog, a collaborative blogging platform for mothers of color, I am no stranger to the "why aren't we included" questions from white mothers. The truth is, weeks like this should not have to exist. Platforms like mine should not be a necessity—but they are. The needs of Black mothers as well as the specific barriers we face are left out of the overall breastfeeding conversation. The historical and cultural context as to why is important.

The History of Black Breastfeeding

Cultural reference should always be considered when discussing breastfeeding. During slavery, Black women were used as wet nurses. A wet nurse is someone who breastfeeds another woman's child. The true definition of a wet nurse states "employed," but replace that word with "forced," and the reality becomes clear. It is generational that Black women have developed a disdain for breastfeeding due to our historical relationship with wet nursing. Because of wet nursing, many Black women were unable to breastfeed their own children. Can you imagine the psychological effect that must have had on a moment that every mother should enjoy?

The truth is, weeks like Black Breastfeeding Week should not have to exist. Platforms like mine should not be a necessity—but they are. The historical and cultural context as to why is important.

Economics should also be considered. Comparing single-family households, 65 percent of Black children are raised in single-family households, while 24 percent of white children are. Black mothers are overwhelmingly the breadwinners of their families. They're more than twice as likely as white mothers and more than 50 percent more likely than Hispanic mothers to bring in the main source of income even when partnered or married, according to the Center for American Progress. Because of this, Black women are more likely to return to work sooner and formula feed their newborns instead of breastfeeding.

Why Black Women Breastfeeding Is So Important

Black women have a history of adverse health outcomes that can be significantly reduced by breastfeeding. Breastfeeding can help lower the risk of obesity, osteoporosis, and breast cancer, which Black women die from at the highest rate. It's also been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, a condition African Americans are 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with than white people, by nearly one half if done for more than two months. Higher breastfeeding rates could also save the lives of many Black babies, who are twice as likely to die during infancy than white infants.

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A mom breastfeeding her baby.
Yeyo Photography

How to Move the Conversation Forward

Black Breastfeeding Week is activism. It is not an attempt to segregate, express superiority, or make any other race of woman feel less than. According to Black Breastfeeding Week's website, this movement was created to close the gaping racial disparity in breastfeeding rates.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends babies are breastfed for the first six months and then continued as complementary foods are introduced for a year or longer. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found breastfeeding rates are significantly lower among the Black population.

A big reason? The CDC found Black women lack access to professional breastfeeding support as well as adequate breastfeeding information from providers. A study shows hospitals in predominantly Black areas were less likely to implement supportive breastfeeding practices, including early initiation of breastfeeding, limited use of breastfeeding supplements, rooming-in, limited use of pacifiers, and post-discharge support. Campaigns like Black Breastfeeding Week can help raise awareness and change this.

To my white mothers, be an ally. Educate yourself on the importance of Black breastfeeding. Like racism, this is not a Black problem. It is all of our problem, and it can only be eradicated once our white allies begin to use their voices and platforms to bring awareness to social issues that plague communities of color. Sharing articles that speak on topics of Black breastfeeding, speaking up, and supporting Black mothers breastfeeding is a step in the right direction to closing the gap. We all hope for a time where the conversation of race does not have to be a part of our most intimate moments. Breastfeeding should be a bonding moment between mother and child that everyone can experience equally.

Shanicia Boswell is the founder of Black Moms Blog, where she talks parenting, culture, and lifestyle from a Black mom's point of view. Her views on parenting and diversity have been featured on The New York Times, CNN/HLN, The Own Network, and Huffington Post.

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