Black women and breastfeeding. This week kicks off Black Breastfeeding Week, which takes place between August 25th – August 31st. The theme for 2020 is Revive, Restore and Reclaim! Not only does representation matter in every aspect of our lives, but what’s also extremely important is the racial disparities in breastfeeding rates. You can learn more about the creators Kimberly Seals Allers, Kiddada Green and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka here.
I reached out to my colleague and friend Colleen Ross, RN, BSN, MSN, IBCLC to discuss Black women and breastfeeding. She’s answering some very important questions, providing resources, statistics, breastfeeding tips and so much more! There’s lots of good info in this post, so lets get into it!
Why is Breastfeeding important ?
Breast milk is great, but breastfeeding is so much more than just the milk. It’s physically healthy for mothers and babies, but it also nurtures more than your baby’s body – the physical closeness, skin-to-skin touching, and eye contact all help your baby bond with you and feel secure. Plus, it’s a great mothering tool–no matter the problem, more often than not, boob is the answer! Baby is tired? Sick? Hurt? Cold? Overstimulated? Boob! (It only took me four children to learn this!). And simply by being present and responsive – offering the breast, and carefully watching our babies, we slowly learn how to be mothers.
1. Breast milk is not always white! It can be blue, green, yellow, pink or orange depending on what you eat or drink. The nutritional composition of breast milk is always changing. Day to day, week to week, and feed to feed.
2. One of the major ways breastfeeding affects human babies is by colonizing the microbiome. What is that? The microbiome is the collection of bacteria, fungi, and archaea that humans carry around. You may have heard the terms “gut health” and “probiotics” not fully realizing they were speaking to the incredible importance of healthy bacteria. There is increasing evidence that balancing this ecosystem affects everything from obesity to anxiety and depression.
3. Microbial content varies–A baby’s suckling at the breast creates a vacuum; and baby’s saliva delivers messages to the mother’s mammary gland receptors. If a particular pathogen is identified, a mother’s body produces antibodies to fight it. Your baby literally tells you through breastfeeding how to protect them!
4. Breasts are never empty! Milk is actually produced nonstop–before, during and after feedings, so there is no need to wait between feedings for your breasts to refill. In fact, a long gap between feeding actually signals your body to make less milk, not more.
5. Human milk is not just food. There’s evidence to suggest that it’s a living highly sophisticated signaling system that has evolutionary consequences on our ability to fight disease and adapt.
Yup–I always say it: Mama’s got the magic
Can you discuss the importance of breastfeeding until at least 6 months?
Breast milk provides the ideal nutrition with all the nutrients that your baby needs during the first six months of life. And breastfeeding has profound health benefits for both mama and babies.
Breast milk contains antibodies that help your baby fight off viruses and bacteria. Breastfeeding lowers a baby’s risk of having asthma or allergies. Plus, babies who breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months, with no formula, are less likely to have problems with:
Food allergies, ear infections, diarrhea, respiratory problems, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), speech issues, Crohn’s Disease, ulcerative colitis, type 1 and 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and some cancers… That’s a long list of undeniable goodness!
It reduces the risk of: postpartum hemorrhage, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, iron deficiency anemia, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, ovarian and breast cancers. Our brain releases hormones during breastfeeding that help us bond with our babies and ease those normal feelings of stress and anxiety. And if that didn’t get you – economically, breastfeeding reduces health care costs for families. Formula is expensive! Besides its health benefits, breastfeeding is also great for the environment. It is the ideal green product – no waste for the landfill and it’s free.
Breastfeeding rates in the U.S.
In the U.S., despite having higher initiation rates than ever, the drop-off rates for breastfeeding are significant, with fewer than 25% of infants receiving exclusive human milk for the first six months. So, considering that human milk is the gold standard for infant nutrition, we need to acknowledge up to 75% of our children are at risk for suboptimal health and developmental outcomes, which is a big deal.
In practice, what are some barriers/challenges you have noticed with black mothers and breastfeeding?
I’m glad you asked. As new mothers, I hope we can acknowledge that we are each trying our hardest to do the very best for our babies. And yet, there are barriers that exist that make this more challenging for some of us. Returning to work can be a major hurdle for breastfeeding continuation for many mamas, but perhaps particularly so for Black mamas.
Let’s backup – insufficient support and stigma make it so Black mothers are less likely to breastfeed. Period. In fact, recent CDC data shows that only 63% of Black women have ever breastfed. And only for 6.4 weeks on average! This disparity reflects much larger systemic issues in our healthcare system that disproportionately prevent Black women from getting the appropriate care and access to resources they need for their breastfeeding journey. So, it isn’t hard to imagine that if Black women are already facing some challenges in initiating breastfeeding, those challenges will still exist as these mamas head back to work.
A little about ACA
Although the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires coverage of all recommended preventive services (breastfeeding education, lactation consultation, breast pumps), these benefits are not available for most people in the 14 states–many of which have large Black populations–that have opted not to expand Medicaid. The ACA also requires employers to provide break time and a private location to nurse, however, many employers fail to comply with this mandate. So sadly, despite the lawful protections in place to support breastfeeding for employees, the burden still falls on working mothers to advocate for the resources they need, at a time when they may be particularly vulnerable. Many mamas may feel like exercising their right to breastfeed is too risky to be an option. Merely raising the idea of breastfeeding accommodations with an employer might create unwanted tension.
Advocating for change
So, what can we do to ensure more equity? Advocate for change. We need policies that enable taking paid leave after giving birth and more flexible work schedules. Support for breastfeeding, or pumping at work, might also help improve breastfeeding initiation and duration. One of the best ways to support systemic inequality for Black breastfeeding mothers is to vote! Support legislation that protects them from hiring discrimination and provides maternity and breastfeeding accommodations for all women. This is where we need to focus our efforts. We need to make sure every Black mother and infant receives the best support possible.
It is important to note that we will not achieve equity in breastfeeding support without Black representation, with Black women leading the way. History tells us that. We need to create a new narrative – empowering health and advocacy groups that center on the experiences of women of color to formulate a breastfeeding agenda inclusive of their unique experiences. Additionally, I believe we need more white birth advocates and IBCLCs (International Board Certified Lactation Consultants) speaking up, stepping up, and learning what being an ally in this field really means.
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