When Alex White had her first child, she was 18 years old. She remembers her experience with breastfeeding her son as unpleasant. “I didn’t know how I would pump or express [milk] once I went back to school,” White recalls. So when she woke up one morning with her shirt soaked in leaking milk, that confirmed her decision to stop nursing. It had only been two weeks.
White says no one ever told her about the challenges that come with breastfeeding—neither her relatives nor the health care professionals at the hospital where she gave birth. “The hospital gave me lots of formula, but didn’t really emphasize breastfeeding,” she shared. That lack of support left her unprepared.
By six months, only 35.3 percent of Black women are still breastfeeding.
For Black mothers, insufficient support and stigma make it so they’re less likely to breastfeed than their White counterparts—and any other women of color (data on Native breastfeeding are scarce, however). Research shows just 57 percent of Black mothers initiate breastfeeding, and the average duration is 6.4 weeks among those who do. By six months, only 35.3 percent of Black women are still breastfeeding. Perhaps because of this, Black moms are nine times more likely to be offered formula by hospitals than Whites, according to Jennifer Hahn-Holbrook, assistant professor in psychology at Chapman University and co-author of the study “Racial and Ethnic Differences in Breastfeeding.”
These obstacles are so common that birth workers Kiddada Green, Kimberly Seals Allers, and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka established a national week of recognition to support Black breastfeeding moms: Black Breastfeeding Week was created in 2012 to acknowledge the racial disparity in breastfeeding that has existed for more than 40 years.
During Aug. 25–31, the founders of Black Breastfeeding Week shine a light on systemic factors that contribute to a high infant mortality rate among Black babies and a general lack of wellness: diet-related diseases, culturally incompetent lactation support, the historical trauma of wet nursing, and food deserts.
Black Breastfeeding Week is about awareness, support, and sisterhood.
Information disseminated by the Black Breastfeeding Week movement has given Alex White the determination and encouragement to succeed.
“My passion for nutrition and health for my family is number one,” she says. Also, after studying nutrition in school, she feels much more prepared with her first child. But White is one of many Black mothers who lacked support for breastfeeding. In a nation that does so little to support Black breastfeeding mothers, there is more work to be done.
Nikia Lawson, a doula whose advocacy and educational efforts in communities of color are helping one mom at a time, is familiar with women like White. She believes Black Breastfeeding Week is about awareness, support, and sisterhood. “It gives us an opportunity to educate, engage, and support Black women around a concept that can not only help change mindsets around breastfeeding, but might even save their and their babies’ lives,” she said.
Lawson offers five ways to support Black breastfeeding mothers.
1. Learn the history
Slavery complicated breastfeeding and left many Black women with a negative association that hasn’t yet dissipated. Black women haven’t always had a choice in breastfeeding, particularly when they were forced to feed White babies as wet nurses, at times unintentionally letting their own children starve.
“Black babies weren’t getting the nutrients they needed, while White babies were thriving from a Black breast,” Lawson said. There were severe consequences of being caught feeding a Black baby from a White child’s supply. “Their baby could be sold or killed if caught, and it created a very negative energy around breastfeeding,” she added.
It is also important to consider the way formula is advertised, and what it offers psychologically to Black women. Marketing around the mass production of baby formula claimed it was better than breast milk. For many women, it “was reflective of social status—if you could afford formula, you had arrived,” Lawson said. Formula companies still highlight the freedom and sophistication associated with their product and associate breastfeeding with domesticity and poverty.
Lawson believes it is particularly important to acknowledge that formula allowed women to avoid the lower-class stigma associated with breastfeeding, especially true for Black women who may feel further behind in social status.
2. Don’t make assumptions
Lawson believes many birth workers lack this sort of cultural awareness. “The Black breastfeeding experience can be crippled when White birth workers bring biases and unintentional microaggressions to those who need their help,” she says. And with so few birth workers of color, it’s common for Black mothers to receive help from White birth workers who lack cultural competence.
It is important that White birth workers take the time to educate themselves on the complexities of Black mothers and breastfeeding, instead of assuming they just don’t want to breastfeed. “Many believe they are doing Black women a favor by offering them formula,” Lawson said.
3. Don’t shame
The stigma Black women face when breastfeeding is multidimensional. On the one hand, it’s associated with the lower classes. On the other, society has sexualized breasts to the point that nursing is considered unnatural. White points out that the natural functions associated with breastfeeding can be a source of ridicule and embarrassment. Shaming mothers for “pump” breaks, being inconsiderate of diet restrictions, and forcing mothers to feed in enclosed areas all play into reduced rates of breastfeeding in the Black community.
“My motto is, human babies deserve human milk,” Lawson said. She says one of the easiest ways to support breastfeeding mothers is to call out individuals who give disgusted glances.
Even within the Black community, people make comments that can discourage mothers from breastfeeding. “It becomes 10 times harder to continue breastfeeding when you have no support and are constantly hearing that it’s dirty or nasty and hearing ignorance-based comments,” Lawson said. So if someone dear to you is breastfeeding, educate yourself on some of the struggles they may face. Offer encouragement and show your interest. Consider accompanying them to breastfeeding classes, or give them resources—books, websites on breastfeeding.
5. Advocate for nursing legislation
Only 28 states have laws that address breastfeeding at work. In addition to maternity leave issues, many women have employers that lack clear rules related to pumping breaks or designated areas to pump. Systemic inequality means this is more of a burden for Black women and other women of color. Wage gaps and unfair hiring practices lead to Black women being overrepresented in lower-level positions that do not offer maternity and breastfeeding protections. The best way to support Black breastfeeding mothers is to support legislation that protects them from hiring discrimination and provides maternity and breastfeeding accommodations for all women.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is an award-winning writer, speaker, and activist working to amplify Black women's voices in the mainstream dialogue, especially within conversations on health and parenting. In addition to YES! her work has been featured in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Fast Company, and a host of other publications. She is also the founder of the #FreeBlackmotherhood movement. She can be reached at amfcontent.com for business inquires and social media for social connections.