Reducing Disparities Around Breastfeeding in Black Communities Could Produce Healthier Parents and Children 

Black Breastfeeding Week sheds light on the disparities Black parents face in breastfeeding. Many of those challenges are familiar.

Black mother nursing newborn baby
Photo: Getty

This year, August 25-31 marks the 10th anniversary of Black Breastfeeding Week, a week of celebrating Black life, encouraging those in our community to breastfeed, and providing support, resources, and informative events. The decision to breastfeed comes with a multitude of benefits for both mother, or birthing person, and child, including protection against illnesses and the sharing of antibodies, and provides the opportunity of creating a stronger bond.

For those who breastfeed, it lowers the risk of certain cancers, like ovarian and breast, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes when done for at least 12 months. Breastfeeding also aids in weight loss and can promote a quicker recovery time. Despite the many advantages, around 69% of Black women breastfeed as opposed to 86% of their white counterparts, with a decline starting near the 6-month mark.

Several factors contribute to Black women's choice to formula-feed rather than breastfeed.

No Time Off

Black women's participation in the labor force is slightly higher than women of other races and ethnicities. Coupled with the fact that approximately 84% of those women are either sole, primary, or co-breadwinners within their household, this means that taking an extended leave from work to exclusively breastfeed is not viable. When faced with the choice of either breastfeeding or providing their family's basic needs, such as food and housing, many must return to work.

While parental leave is an option for some to at least start the process, 55% of parental leave taken by Black women is unpaid. Though employees are required by law to provide safe and secure areas for parents to pump on the job, often pumping breaks are also unpaid. Even a small loss in wages can result in larger, detrimental effects for the entire household. Implementing a national paid leave policy would provide birthing people with the funds to take leave, allowing more time with family and the opportunity for rest and healing. As Black women have the highest maternal mortality rate in the U.S., and this could also be the difference between life and death.

Fewer Educational Resources

With a lack of resources, adequate healthcare options, and support, some Black women simply do not have enough knowledge or tools to make an informed choice. Studies have found that "the rate of implementation of evidence-based maternity care practices supportive of breastfeeding is lower among maternity care facilities in neighborhoods with larger Black populations." These facilities fail to provide new birthing people with lactation assistance and push to offer formula without any medical indication to do so. Support from others at healthcare facilities, the workplace, and inside the home also contribute to a parent's desire to breastfeed, as providing help leads to a likelier outcome of choosing to nurse. Limited social support leaves many birthing people with no one to turn to if issues, such as a low milk supply or clogged milk ducts, arise, which may further discourage them from breastfeeding and turn them towards formula.

There are also lesser-known components that deter Black women from breastfeeding.

The Hyper-Sexualization of Black Women

Historically, the bodies of Black women have been sexualized starting at extremely young ages. There have been several instances of women of all races and ethnicities being shamed and harassed for public breastfeeding without coverage. Knowing that your body type is prone to unjust criticism and reactions even without the element of breastfeeding can deter many from considering it. Additionally, Black women were forced to work as wet nurses during slavery, taking away their personal agency and cementing their feelings of having no choice.

Persisting Misconceptions

Misconceptions and stigmas can also add to a birthing person's hesitancy to breastfeed. Some think formula feeding is easier, but that is not necessarily true. While breastfeeding will likely cause mild pain and discomfort, it gets easier over time as the body and baby adjust. Though more desirable pumping machines may come at high prices, breastfeeding can save a family up to $1500 on formula within the first year of a child's life.

The notion that breastfeeding can "spoil" a child is another harmful stigma. A strong attachment between birthing parent and child is desired and ideal. It provides time to cultivate a unique and incomparable bond. Breastfeeding may also prove beneficial in relation to time. Properly making a bottle is more time-consuming, and, in most cases, clean-up is faster without having to disinfect bottles, nipples, and liners.

Worrying about not producing enough milk is a common thought among new parents. There are plenty of ways to help increase milk supply, including feeding on demand, not supplementing feeding times with formula, and drinking an adequate amount of water.

Finding Support

Supporting and encouraging Black birthing people to breastfeed can start with educating families and communities on the benefits and fundamentals of the process. There are several organizations, specifically catered to Black mothers, that provide resources, events, videos, and education on breastfeeding including where and how to get pumping supplies and accessories. Organizations like Black Girls' Breastfeeding Club, Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association, and Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE) are working to reduce disparities in breastfeeding within the Black community and aim to increase the percentage of Black birthing people who breastfeed and extend the duration of their journeys.

Providing relief within the home can significantly reduce the amount of stress on a new parent. Lending a helping hand either with the baby or household chores can provide a birthing parent with some much-needed personal time. Replenishing any supplies and completing strenuous tasks can also allow the breastfeeding parent to stay rested and comfortable, aiding in recovery. It is also important to listen to and anticipate the breastfeeding parent's needs. Offering mental support is just as imperative as contributing physical assistance.

Despite the challenges, with a more concentrated effort on postpartum care within our communities, educating families on breastfeeding practices, better healthcare options, and access to lactation specialists and resources, the disparities Black birthing people face in breastfeeding can be significantly diminished.

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