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Breastfeeding Tips

Q&A: Black Women Breastfeeding-part 2

Discussing the importance of black women and breastfeeding with a lactation consult.

Let’s continue our discussion with Colleen Ross, RN, BSN, MSN, IBCLC discussing Black women and breastfeeding. If you landed here first be sure to check out part 1!

 What are some of your best recommended resources for black women and breastfeeding?

Let’s be real.  Breastfeeding can be HARD.  Especially for those lacking necessary supports.  I mean, yes, you can read books on breastfeeding, and watch YouTube videos and find professionals. But sometimes you want to talk to or just see someone who is in the trenches with you  – an authentic and representative presence. And I am encouraged by what I’m seeing happening in the online breastfeeding world.

Here’s a (by no means an exhaustive) list of some supports

  • Black Moms Breastfeeding Support Group (94,000 members strong and counting)–l   love that they also have a support group for dads of breastfeeding moms… ’cause-it takes a village!    
  • First Droplets: An informational website for hand expression instructions and teaching importance of the first hours of life. The site includes illustrations of women and men of color.  And representation matters.
  • Black Women Do Breastfeed –  A page dedicated to showing photography of the full melanated spectrum of breastfeeding experiences
  • Blactavist   – Felisha Floyd, an IBCLC using beautiful images and information to change the visibility of black women breastfeeding.
  •   Kimberly Seals Allers–The personal page of Ms. Allers–an award-winning journalist changing motherhood for all, through powerful advocacy and writing.
  • There are also organizations specifically dedicated to reducing racial disparities in breastfeeding like Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association (BMBFA), as well as organizations more broadly working to better the lives of Black mothers, such as Black Mamas Matter.

Can you speak about the lack of diversity in the lactation field and the challenges it may cause to black women wanting to seek help?

I see a tremendous opportunity for growth and change here.  And while we have really made some progress in recent years in the field of breastfeeding, it is not enough.

First, I want to recognize that the important work women have done to advance breastfeeding in the U.S. and around the world cannot be understated.  I am thankful for the way female-led organizations have been a critical voice for advocacy and policy change.  They have gotten us very far.  But those gains have been primarily pushed by white women and come with continued and sustained losses for our Black and brown mothers.  And so, the first order of business for changing the future is acknowledging that what we have done in the past hasn’t worked well for all of us.  If we want to change the breastfeeding experience, we need to help empower Black and brown women to be at the center of leading the charge for Black birth experience and breastfeeding change.

Birth and breastfeeding research tells us that all women do better with social support and authentic presence. No big surprise there.  For example, I had a patient the other week who was the first in her immediate family to breastfeed. She said to me, “During my pregnancy, I was consistently exposed to positive images of motherhood in the media. But there was no reflection of young breast-feeding women who LOOKED like me.”  That’s a powerful statement. But perhaps things are changing.  There was a recent GAP ad gone viral showing a young Black mother breastfeeding which I was particularly encouraged by. And I hope with the cultural awakening happening all around us, major corporations are taking notice and creating more culturally diverse advertising campaigns.

To your point, there are few lactation consultants who understand Black culture and the negative historical legacy of breastfeeding. Many lactation consultants do not account for entrenched structural barriers that hinder the ability of Black mothers to breastfeed before they can even consider if it’s the right choice for them. Or fully realize the economic struggles that leave these mamas without the information or opportunities they need to breastfeed successfully. And at the end of the day, there are just a few women of color lactation consultants to assist these women in a way that can attempt to address the challenges they face.

A black woman breastfeeding hours after birth.

The importance of black women breastfeeding

Think about this: According to the CDC, increased breastfeeding among Black women could decrease infant mortality rates by as much as 50%. So, when I say breastfeeding is a life or death matter, this is what I mean. We clearly have our work cut out for us to ensure that Black families can make informed breastfeeding decisions and are fully empowered and supported in their journey.

Covid -19 is affecting black communities at an alarming rate. What advice and/or resources would you give to black women breastfeeding during these times?

Covid is impacting new families in many ways.  For example, breastfeeding mamas returning to work often rely on parents and grandparents as caregivers for their children. This creates a disastrous storm now as older people are more vulnerable to the virus and need to be isolated.  This is happening just as financial pressure intensifies as the economy tanks and job losses increase. There is an emotional and physical toll here that we are just beginning to realize.

How Covid-19 is affecting the support black women need

Peer-based programs that have traditionally helped increase breastfeeding rates among Black women—from WIC peer counselors to local breastfeeding “clubs” or support groups. Are now eliminated because of social distancing restrictions, further threatening Black breastfeeding rates. And we already know there aren’t equal breastfeeding outcomes based on race.  It’s one of my genuine worries about this current situation. We already have these disparities in breastfeeding rates for women of color, the coronavirus pandemic could make those disparities starker.

The outbreak of COVID-19 is a stressful time for everyone. This may be especially true for mothers who are breastfeeding and concerned about their baby’s health. However, new moms CAN successfully start and maintain breastfeeding during the pandemic, with some recommended precautions.

Is it recommended to breastfeed during the pandemic?

Yes! To date, there is no evidence to date that COVID-19 is passed from mother to baby in breast milk. We do know that COVID-positive mothers produce an antibody response; so, their babies receive the immunities via milk. And breastfeeding has been shown to be safe when mothers have other viruses like the flu.  Looking at the data, both the CDC and WHO recommend breastfeeding during this time based on what we know about the substantial benefits of breastfeeding for mother, child, and society.

What to do if you are breastfeeding and have symptoms or confirmed Covid-19 positive?

Here are some guidelines:

First, mothers and babies should not be separated at delivery. A breastfeeding mother should practice respiratory hygiene. She should be wearing a mask, washing her hands before and after touching the baby. It is not necessary for mom to wash or clean her breast unless she coughed on and/or exposed the breast to droplets. She should keep her chest covered, wear a mask, and follow appropriate hand hygiene before and after holding the baby. She should also be routinely wiping down her pump and washing pump parts.

Breastfeeding is an important public health intervention and we as health professionals have an important role to play in educating and supporting mothers. We need to not only help initiate but also maintain breastfeeding for the recommended duration even and especially during times of stress and illness, like the Covid-19 pandemic.

A tip from Colleen– Last, if there’s one piece of advice I can give, it’s that more women should spend their pregnancies preparing to breastfeed.  Most of us mamas plan to breastfeed, but few of us plan accordingly. We decorate the nursery; discuss our birth plan, but we often forget breastfeeding.  We can fundamentally change breastfeeding statistics by just thinking ahead for preparedness.  And finally, in a nation that has historically done little to support Black breastfeeding mothers, I am glad to be having these conversations.

Thank you Colleen for being apart of such an important discussion!

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