Despite evidence that says “breast is best,” too many black women don’t breastfeed their babies
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women exclusively nurse their babies for at least a full six months. Ideally, all women would breastfeed for the first year of their babies’ lives. Why? Research indicates that nursing an infant may lead to a stronger immune system, less diarrhea, less constipation, fewer colds and ear infections, and lower rates of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). “Breast milk is best for babies,” explains Atlanta pediatrician Joyce Lovett, M.D., “because it contains nutritional components that are natural tranquilizers for babies and is always clean and at the right temperature.”
For the nursing mother, Dr. Lovett says, breastfeeding promotes faster loss of pregnancy weight, stimulates the uterus to contract to pre-pregnancy size, produces naturally soothing hormones and may lower the risk of developing some types of cancer and osteoporosis in later life.
Despite all this evidence to support breastfeeding, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that only about 32 percent of American children born in 2005 were exclusively breastfed for three months and only 12 percent of American children born that same year were nursed without formula supplementation for the recommended first six months of the infant’s life. Among specific groups of women, particularly African Americans, Latinas, low-income women and women younger than 20, the numbers are even lower.
Black Health Matters talked to Kimberly Seals Allers creator of MochaManual.com and parenting and breastfeeding advocate, about why we’re so reluctant to breastfeed and what can be done to reverse this phenomenon.
BHM: Is it that we don’t breastfeed at all or that we don’t breastfeed long enough?
Kimberly Seals Allers: It’s a little bit of both. There have been some recent increases in duration, but when it gets to six months, we’re about 20 percent. Our white counterparts are at about 50 percent.
BHM: What are some of the reasons black women don’t breastfeed?
KSA: There’s not one answer for this. It’s really complicated. There are the leftover nuances of our role as wet nurses during slavery. And then we had a huge disconnect in the 1940s, where the infant formula market was really aggressive. The thinking was if you have money, you buy formula. There’s nothing like African Americans wanting to show that we have arrived, that we have money. White women were really leading the way away from breastfeeding. And we followed them. [In my work as a breastfeeding advocate] I hear a lot of “breastfeeding is for poor people.”
Then white women came back [to breastfeeding]—and have done so in large numbers, with lots of celebrity role models. We have not followed suit.
There are also lifestyle stereotypes surrounding breastfeeding. There’s a perception within our own community is that it’s the girls with head wraps and naturals and eating granola. I blame this on the National Geographic effect. The only time we used to see black women breastfeeding was in that magazine—half naked, with elongated noses and earrings. And we said, “That’s not us.”
Lack of community support is another reason. A lot of times we don’t have the support. Our men are a huge issue. And if they’re not into it….
BHM: Wait—our men?
KSA: We have a whole sexualization of the breast. We’re OK to see it as a sexual object, but not as a source of food. We’re fine with seeing it used to sell chicken, but breastfeeding? We’re, like, “Ooo, that’s nasty.” And our men don’t want us to show our breasts to other people. There a whole kind of urban legend around how much of your breast is exposed when you breastfeed.
The invisibility of it is yet another reason. We don’t see anybody breastfeeding. It’s why I was so vocal about Beyoncé when she was breastfeeding. Celebrity role models have made it trendy to breastfeed. Whites have Angelina [Jolie] and Gwen [Stefani]. We haven’t had women on that level. We need to see it more in our community so we can normalize it.
BHM: How do we turn this beat around? How do we support black women better so they do breastfeed more, at least until the six-month mark?
KSA: We have to change our own story. I started Black Breastfeeding 360 to combat us not breastfeeding, to share our stories. We need to show us doing it. If I had a dollar for every woman who says to me, “oh, I don’t wanna spoil my baby.” They think the baby will develop just needing them. It’s a very complicated thing to hear a woman think that giving her baby the best food possible will spoil her baby.
When a mother says she’s afraid of spoiling her child, what I hear is, “We know the world is a difficult place and our children have to be tough from birth.”
That breaks my heart the most. It is a tough world. But how about we start worrying about that at six months? It’s not about spoiling your baby. It’s about giving them the best food possible. We have to reframe the conversation.
We need to better educate our men on benefits of breastfeeding. A lot of programs are not including the men. When I speak to men, and say how breastfeeding can make their baby healthier and smarter, they’re on board.
We need more black women working in the lactation field so we can see someone who looks like us dealing with our issues, so moms can have more opportunities to ask questions and make educated decisions about breastfeeding.
Be supportive of mothers who are trying to give their baby that best start. If you see a woman breastfeeding, give her a high five, not a negative story. Not like when you see a pregnant woman and you say, “Girl, when I was in labor for 32 hours.” Don’t do that to breastfeeding women.
Let’s start talking about it. We need to have conversations about it. This is the way we used to feed our babies all the time. It’s how we became wet nurses. We used to be very proactive about breastfeeding. We start by taking small steps within in our own community and with our own friends and family.
Since health-care providers are the public’s first line of defense against widening health disparities, and breastfeeding is one of the best early ways to combat many of these conditions, the National Medical Association has formed the Breastfeeding Alliance. This task force, supported by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, is designed to educate physicians about the importance of breastfeeding and encourage them to start the dialogue about the practice with new moms.