What No One Tells Black Women About Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding is good for mom and baby but stigma and medical discrimination keep many Black women from trying
After Kimberly Seals Allers gave birth to her son, she went to a local La Leche League meeting to get support from other breastfeeding moms. “But there was nobody who looked like me, and certainly there was nobody who was going back to work like I was,” she told ZORA. “It was really White, and stay-at-home-mother centered.”
Seals Allers says that her breastfeeding journey with her son ended up being much shorter than with her older daughter — she didn’t get advice on how to start weaning her son, or when to start pumping to build up a stash of breast milk. “I did not have the support,” she says. “I did not know people who I could talk to.”
Seals Allers, a journalist, maternal and infant health advocate, and author of The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding, says this is one of the many experiences that prompted her to co-found Black Breastfeeding Week (the eighth annual version of the event is happening from August 25–31). The week aims to educate families about breastfeeding and amplify stories and images of Black breastfeeding in order to help make a cultural shift.
“Disproportionately, Black women are not receiving information about breastfeeding and nobody’s encouraging them.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants drink breast milk exclusively for the first six months of their life, citing benefits for infants including reduced risk of respiratory issues, gastrointestinal infections, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), allergies, and more. Recent data suggests that the breastfeeding initiation rate for Black moms is 58.1%, compared to 80.6% for the Hispanic/Latinx population and 81.5% for White moms.
And while breastfeeding won’t be possible for every family, experts believe that these disparities can be largely attributed to a systemic lack of education and support rather than personal choice.
The lack of institutional support breastfeeding Black mothers face from health care providers field is shameful, but not surprising. We’re all aware of the racial disparities Black moms and babies face — Black moms are three times more likely than White ones to die from pregnancy or childbirth; Black babies are twice as likely to die than White ones. More health care disparities can be found in the health care services Black families receive: PBS reports that hospital maternity wards serving majority Black populations were “less likely to help black women initiate breastfeeding after giving birth or offer lactation support following delivery.”
This issue is only compounded by deeply painful cultural histories.
“Think about the historical legacy and the trauma with breastfeeding our community,” Seals Allers says. “During slavery, Black women were stopped from breastfeeding our own children, and forced to breastfeed the children of our White oppressors… imagine what it would be like to be denied that bond with your own child.”
Seals Allers says that complex cultural narratives about breastfeeding, coupled with the hypersexualization of Black women’s bodies, contribute to these disparities. Another major culprit: “We have found that, disproportionately, Black women and their families are not receiving information about breastfeeding. And nobody’s encouraging them to breastfeed.”
The hope is that raising awareness about breastfeeding and normalizing it for Black folks will lead to an uptick in moms who are interested in learning more. If that’s the case — where do you start?
“You want to have as many breastfeeding cheerleaders in your corner as possible.”
“Breastfeeding classes are a great resource for parents looking to learn more about breastfeeding,” says Kameelah Phillips, MD, a board-certified OB-GYN and founder of Calla Women’s Health in New York City. “These classes help you understand the benefits of breastfeeding for mom and baby, and can help empower the decision and commitment to breastfeed.”
Hospitals typically have a certified lactation consultant available to meet with moms and newborns, which is a service you should absolutely opt for if you’re interested in breastfeeding. “They can observe the mommy-baby dyad during nursing,” Phillips says. “They can make suggestions and necessary adjustments to help get breastfeeding off to a good start. They can also make telehealth visits and observe the feeding when you are at home.”
It can also be helpful for moms to know what potential roadblocks to look out for. “A common thing I hear from Black breastfeeding moms is that no one told them how to determine if their baby is getting enough milk, and no one told them how to properly latch,” says Krystal Duhaney, RN, founder of lactation support company Milky Mama. “These two items are vital to having a successful breastfeeding journey.” Duhaney says that knowing what’s normal (sore nipples) versus what might signal a problem (cracked nipples) can also empower moms to know when they need expert support.
“Breastfeeding is a social justice issue.”
Experts say that a supportive community also makes a major difference. According to a small 2019 study published in the Journal of Human Lactation, online support groups can “positively influence breastfeeding norms and confidence in breastfeeding”—and help moms breastfeed for longer. You can look on Facebook for local groups, or check out national organizations like the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association. This type of support is especially crucial for working moms, who have to plan around commuting, pumping at work, and storing their breast milk on the go.
While Covid-19 has disrupted in-person services, virtual support groups are easier than ever to access, and many lactation specialists have pivoted to online work. Another helpful tip? Get family and friends on your side. “You want to have as many breastfeeding cheerleaders in your corner as possible,” Duhaney says. “Find a knowledgeable lactation consultant, a breastfeeding support group, and teach your family and friends everything you know, so they can support you, too.”
Ultimately, Seals Allers says, she’ll be happy when all Black moms are given breastfeeding education, widespread support, and celebration — so they can choose what’s right for them. “Breastfeeding is a social justice issue,” she says. “We know there is a system that devalues our Black men, our children. This is a way to show: We do care about our children. We love them from birth.”