Black Breastfeeding Week is the last week of August during National Breastfeeding Month. By raising awareness of the disparities Black mothers face, the barriers they encounter to breastfeed their babies and becoming educated on the history of breastfeeding in Black communities, we are better able to support families through their parenting journey.
How it started
Black Breastfeeding Week was started in 2013 by three women. Kimberly Seals Allers, Kiddada Green and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka have set the goals of building awareness of the differences in breastfeeding support and rates because of race. They aim to empower everyone to bring racial equity to the world of lactation support, build community engagement and raise cultural empowerment.
Taking a look at the facts is shocking and highlights the need for us to all continue to work together to create change. Although we only dedicate one week during National Breastfeeding month to this topic, supporting Black families in their breastfeeding success needs to become part of everyday of the year.
Black babies are dying
Black babies have a high mortality rate compared to white babies. Black babies are dying at twice the rate and in some areas almost triple the rate of white babies. Breastfeeding protects babies against many illnesses and could lower the infant mortality rate among Black babies by as much as 50%. Breastfeeding is a life and death matter.
More Black babies are born small, early or sick and breast milk can be the difference between surviving or not for them. Breastfeeding provides health benefits to both mother and child, is the most nutritious food and is uniquely tailored for babies to meet their health and growth needs.
Black women are more likely to have cesarean section births which make breastfeeding initiation harder. As of 2019, the rate of cesarean section intervention was 35.9% for Black women compared to 30.7% for white women. Recovery from cesarean section birth is often longer and harder than vaginal birth.
Breastfeeding initiation & continuation
The national average of infants ever breastfed is 84%, but among Black infants this drops to only 76%. At 6 months postpartum, about 45% of white babies are still being breastfed, but only 30% of Black babies are still breastfeeding. By one year old, 24% of white babies are still getting breast milk while only 13% of Black babies are getting breastmilk.(1) This wide gap in rates between white and Black babies has existed for decades and has seen little improvement.
Lack of support
Black mothers face more barriers to breastfeeding than white mothers do. While all mothers who breastfeed may experience challenges in the beginning like sore nipples, getting used to the new life schedule now that the baby has arrived and planning for returning to work, there are even more barriers reported in Black communities. These barriers include a lack of support and education for breastfeeding and having to return to work sooner. Black mothers are more likely to have jobs with shorter maternity leave times or with a payscale that is low meaning they may need to return to work sooner.
More likely to be offered formula
It is reported that WIC participants who are Black are more likely to receive advice on formula feeding compared to white participants who are more likely to receive information on breastfeeding. African American women make up a larger portion than white women in WIC participation yet are receiving less breastfeeding support through those services. The same has been reported about breastfeeding support versus being offered formula in the hospital setting. Black mothers are more likely to be offered formula and less likely to be offered support for the initiation of breastfeeding after giving birth.(2)
High rates of diet-related disease
Breast milk is a complete first food and is proven to reduce the risks of many health conditions which have high rates among African American women. By supporting Black women to initiate and continue breastfeeding their babies, childhood illnesses like upper respiratory infections, asthma, SIDS, type 2 diabetes and childhood obesity could be reduced. Black communities are often areas of food deserts where access to healthy food is lacking.(3)
Black mothers were often forced to serve as wet nurses during slavery, putting their own infants at significant risk. This act reflected the struggles, exploitation and dehumanization of Black mothers. During this time, white women would get pregnant at the same time as black women so they could take advantage of her milk supply. Other times, a Black woman would be sold as a wet nurse before having a chance to even feed her own newborn.
“To feed white children when you are racially oppressed by the white race was traumatizing to say the least.”(4)
Breastfeeding advocacy and education is typically led by white females
Although well intentioned, white women do not understand or relate to the complexities and difficulties Black women face. Most of the education and representation of breastfeeding is through the lens of a white person and ignores issues specific to Black women and the difference in the presentation of common breastfeeding issues on dark skin. Breastfeeding leadership needs to include more Black lactation consultants and birth workers who can offer sensitive and appropriate care for Black breastfeeding mothers.
How you can be part of the solution
Join in the celebration of Black Breastfeeding Week! The above problems are current issues. By raising awareness of the need to address the problems, we can make bigger changes working together to provide education and support for women in Black communities and decrease the disparities in breastfeeding rates.
Everyone is included in the opportunity to make change. This is not about excluding white mothers. It is about amplifying the voices of those who are facing larger challenges. Look at it this way, every house in a neighborhood matters, but if one of those houses is one fire, we all need to direct our attention to that house and fight to put the fire out. Celebrating Black breastfeeding and demanding the bar is raised for the quality of education and care Black mothers and babies get for breastfeeding benefits the entire breastfeeding community.