As a mother and aspiring birth educator, I feel pretty strongly about breastfeeding. Although growing up I never saw an example of a mother adamant about breastfeeding. My own mother didn’t even breastfeed us, so I’m not sure where I got the notion that I would breastfeed. I assume that it was an experience kind of like deciding I would have a natural birth. We never talked about those things growing, I just assumed everyone had a medicated birth and everyone used formula. Then I saw “The Business of Being Born” and it opened me up to another world of parenting. At the time that I saw this I was already a sophomore at Southern Miss and I was in an English class with a pretty radical teacher (radical in comparison to me at that time), she talked about feminism and the right to choose what kind of experiences you would have in life. These experiences included child birth and parenthood. I discovered then that there are different ways of doing things.
Even after deciding that I would personally breastfeed and doing a great deal of research, I didn’t see a ton of representation as far as breastfeeding. What I saw around me was typically white women breastfeeding, my friends with children formula fed, my family members formula fed, and I was formula fed. I didn’t understand why, with all the information about how beneficial it was, why weren’t black women breastfeeding. Even on tv shortly after the baby is born they pop a bottle into the mouths of those little brown babes. Why? Is it the lack of support at home? Could it be the lack of media representation? Why are black women lagging in the breastfeeding race? Why is there a negative connotation associated with black women and breastfeeding?
Maybe two years ago shortly after I gave birth to my little boy a pretty controversial picture came out. Controversial is really very relative because by no means was controversial to me, especially as a proud breastfeeding mama. Nonetheless it was a picture of a young lady breastfeeding after graduation in her cap and gown. She was dragged all over twitter, more concerning (or just as concerning) than the blatant cyber bullying, her tormentors were primarily black! A few months later another picture came out, some how less controversial in content but still very similar pictures. This picture featured another young lady also in her cap and gown at her college graduation, breastfeeding. This particular picture was some how deemed adorable and inspiring. What was the difference? One thing, the first young lady was black and the latter was white. How could two pictures be viewed so differently though? How could other black people be so unsupportive of this black graduate simply because she was breastfeeding?
A lot of women choose not to breastfeed due to myths that they’ve heard such as: the baby wont get enough to eat, breastfeeding is for poor people, breastfeeding leads to breast cancer, and breast are only for sexual pleasure. Although breastfeeding in the black community is on the rise, we still lag behind our counterparts of other races. I’ve narrowed down a few possible causes:
· Lack of support in hospitals (as well as health care providers and WIC counselors)
· Lack of support systems at home
· Lack of representation
· Lactation support isn’t available in that area
· Employment related barriers
· History of racial injustice in relation to breastfeeding
Typically the larger the black demographic is in a hospital, the less likely they are to encourage breastfeeding. Maybe due to the predisposition that black women don’t breastfeed. (more likely to encourage formula less likely to encourage rooming-in). There is also a lack of Baby-friendly hospitals, these are less likely to be prevalent where black women are the majority. They are more prevalent where black women have a less than average population. (For those who are not familiar baby- Baby Friendly Hospitals: The Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) is a global program that was launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 1991 to encourage and recognize hospitals and birthing centers that offer an optimal level of care for infant feeding and mother/baby bonding.) There may also be Lack of racial sensitivity to why black women may not want to breastfeed.
The lack of a support system could be maternal or spouse related. Many women have mothers who did not breastfeed, and don’t encourage it. Spouse are often afraid they wont be able to bond with the child if the mother breastfeeds, making them less supportive because they feel as though they cannot contribute to the child’s nourishment. Friends who did not breastfeed, therefore they offer little support when they breastfeeding journey gets tough. Lactation consultants, such as La Leche League offer free of services. But if you are not informed, often times you don’t know who to turn to for information and help.
There is definitely a lack of black representation within the media, which may in turn be due to the overall lack of representation when it comes to women of color or due to the actual lower numbers of women who breastfeed. We often see models and celebrities taking glamour shots of them breastfeeding or advocating on talk shows but I see very few black celebrities doing so. This is with the exception of Tia and Tamara on their reality show, and occasionally on Instagram.
There are also a variety of work related barriers, considering many work environments are condusive to long term breastfeeding and maternity leave laws that have long been outdated compared to other countries. Limited maternity leave doesn’t allow adequate time to establish a regular nursing routine and full time employment is counter productive in many cases of breastfeeding, causing mother and child to be apart long hours everyday. For those that prefer to pump, many employers don’t provide an adequate space or amount of time to do so, in addition to an unsupportive boss or generally unsupportive environment it makes it especially hard for women to continue breastfeeding after returning to work full time.
A wet nurse is a woman who breast feeds and cares for another’s child. Wet nurses are employed when the mother is unable or chooses not to nurse the child herself. Wet nurses were used heavily during slavery but continued on even after the abolishment of slavery. Early wet nurses faced malnutrition and starvation of their own babies because long work hours away from home kept wet nurses from nursing there own babies. During the 1960’s-1970’s many women stopped breastfeeding altogether due to the negative connotation. Yet many southern families hired wet nurses well into the 1980’s.
How can we change the way we view breastfeeding in the black community, and how can we make it the norm? The best way to start would be peer to peer support, connecting with other moms who have breastfed or are currently breastfeeding. Then a support system within the home. A greater representation in the media would also be very beneficial, if more black mothers in the limelight talked about their breastfeeding experience it would encourage our everyday moms. Community support also plays a huge role in breastfeeding success, from hospitals, social services and increased access to lactation services. And finally support in the work place, the laws are there but they must be enforced. We need to fight for our rights to breastfeed and be encouraged to do so.