Guest Piece by Amber Oliver of Look What Love Made
While we have August serving as National Breastfeeding month it was also necessary to create a week within this month specifically for black and brown moms. Many aren’t aware of the grave differences in support moms of color receive (or don’t receive) and how it intensifies hardships while nursing or plays in negative perceptions of breastfeeding in our communities.
Too often, misconstrued mindsets of Black Breastfeeding Week cause negative assumptions that this week has means to “cause separation” often because anything involving race makes many feel uncomfortable and the clear needs for awareness get distorted.
Black women have different needs and obstacles when it comes to breastfeeding. There is a disparity in support and education in our communities. Often the cultural misproportion of support groups also plays a factor as many moms of color express not seeking resources because no one in the room looks like them. It’s hard to feel welcomed when you feel different and unrelatable. Let’s also not forget to mention there aren’t as many black lactivists though fortunately, more and more women of color are stepping into roles of breastfeeding support.
The disparity even reaches beyond western culture, because infant formula companies have made a habit of preying on women low-income women in Africa; telling them that formula is the sophisticated way to feed babies, which is often a death sentence. Lack of clean water and being unable to afford more formula leads to watering it down, which causes malnutrition, which leads to illness and death.
There is also a negative stigma integrated into our generations of black/brown moms in regard to breastfeeding dating back to slavery where our ancestors’ children were ripped from their wombs, sold off, and yet they were forced to wet nurse the children of their enslavers – not even being afforded their right as a mother to feed their own children. That pain still runs deep and has fashioned the mindsets of the elders in our community. Generation trauma is REAL.
The most recent CDC data shows that 75% of white women have breastfed versus 58.9% of black women.
The Proof is in the Facts
But the most significant reason for needing Black Breastfeeding Week is the high black infant mortality rate. Yes, that’s right, black and brown babies are dying at twice–and sometimes three times the rate of white babies. Like a lot of other critical information reflecting heartbreaking racial disparity, this information has been kept quiet for over 40 years. The good news is that it is coming to light thanks to mainstream media. People are talking about it and black women are Some of the challenges black mothers face include a lack of diversity in the lactation field and other unique cultural barriers.
The high infant mortality rate among black infants is majorly due to increased percentages of premature births. According to the CDC, increased breastfeeding among black women could decrease infant mortality rates by as much as 50%.
Cultural Competence Matters
I personally experienced this with my first child. Living in a melting pot where the cultural line of division was still very visible had a definite effect on my first experience. My now 7-year-old son was born not breathing due to swallowing amniotic fluid upon exiting my vaginal canal. At the time I had no knowledge of breastfeeding except that I wanted to do it.
During his 3-day NICU stay, he was given formula without my permission and I was told I couldn’t nurse. I would later find this to be untrue because he was full term and I could have syringe fed him my colostrum. He also had a tongue tie that went undiagnosed and make nursing extremely painful. I wasn’t encouraged or educated, I was instead told breastfeeding wouldn’t be able to work to be and pushed to introduce formula. I was also told I was “overreacting” to the nursing pain and while I cried for lactation consultants they rushed in and out of our NICU room hurriedly with little to no patience for my first-time mom anxiety.
I went to two breastfeeding support meetings. I was the only black mom in the room, I wasn’t included in the mom chatter, just sitting off by myself trying to drown out the “outsider feel” in an attempt to regain the information being shared. With this added to the stress of trying to breastfeed, the mom guilt of introducing formula; I never returned to those meetings. I instead self-researched, came across relactation, and went through the process to re-establish my milk supply and pump for my son for 15 months. It was then I decided to become a lactation consultant and that I wanted to be sure to focus on moms in the black and brown communities.
This story is familiar or similar to many of our mothers, and not even just correlated to breastfeeding experiences but also has a grave effect on Minority mental health and the Black Maternal mortality rates. Too often the disparity isn’t seen, our cries for help are rendered “extra” or we are treated like we don’t understand our own bodies.
Breastfeeding leadership lack black presence and unfortunately perpetuates the common misconception that black women don’t breastfeed. It also means that many of the lactation professionals, though well-intentioned, are not culturally competent, sensitive or relevant enough to properly deal with African American moms. This is a week to also discuss the lack of diversity among lactation consultants and to change our narrative. A time to highlight, celebrate and showcase the breastfeeding champions in our community who are often invisible. And to make sure that breastfeeding leadership also reflects the same parity we seek among women who breastfeed.
The Biggest Myths that Impact our Community
Myth: You need to supplement because your baby seems hungry or is crying all the time.
When you breastfeed on demand, your baby stays satisfied. Remember, newborn tummies are tiny, so they fill up fast, empty, and then need to be filled up again.
What does a hungry baby look like? Look for your baby’s hunger cues – head turning toward the breast, fist gnawing, or lip-smacking.
Crying due to hunger is a grumpy baby’s last resort when someone missed his or her earlier hunger signs. Also realize a baby cries for reasons other than hunger — sleepiness, feeling gassy or sick, having a dirty diaper, or just needing to be held. Trust that your breast milk provides all the nutrients, protein, and hydration your baby needs for the first six months of life. No supplements or cereals are needed.
If your baby is crying for hours and hours and you are not able to comfort him or her, it could be a sign of colic. Check with your baby’s doctor or nurse.
Myth: Formula feeding is cheaper than breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding can actually save a family up to $1,500 in a baby’s first year alone. Even when moms receive benefits from programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which provides supplemental foods to low-income women and their babies, moms who breastfeed exclusively get better financial benefits for a full year (versus six months or less for formula-feeding moms).
Myth: Breastfeeding hurts.
The truth is that breastfeeding is not supposed to be painful. In fact, pain is usually a red flag that something is wrong. While a baby’s latch can be strong, it’s not actually biting, not even when the baby is cutting teeth. As with any new skill, there is an adjustment period.
Myth: Bigger babies are healthier babies.
The idea that big, chubby babies are healthier babies is not necessarily true. Every baby grows at his or her own pace, which is checked at every well-baby visit by a doctor or nurse. Breastfed babies know how to self-regulate, which means they stop eating when their tummy is full, not when the bottle is empty. If you are concerned that your baby is too skinny or too big, check with your baby’s doctor or nurse.
The Chocolate Milk Documentary
If you aren’t familiar with this week and why we need it; The Chocolate Documentary is a great place to start. Its an exploration of the racial divide in breastfeeding. Told through the narratives of three African American women: a new mother, a midwife and a WIC lactation educator, the film seeks to answer the longstanding question of why more African American women are not breastfeeding.
By creating an engaging narrative centered around the challenges of breastfeeding, Chocolate Milk will spark public discussion on how communities can better support black mothers. This documentary premiered this month via over 200 free community screenings across the country in honor of National Breastfeeding Month.
There is also a Chocolate Milk Documentary Series, a collection of over 40 testimonials of mothers and health providers about their experiences or personal journeys with breastfeeding. This series project was developed to increase normalcy around breastfeeding within the African American community and to give those who have influence within the breastfeeding community the tools to help mother’s ability to sustain exclusive breastfeeding.
I had the privilege to attend and speak at our local free screening, hosted by my doula whom is also featured in the series on DVD. I shared my difficulties nursing my son, how it affected my mental health, how my experience now with my daughter has differed (with way more information now then I had back then), and how practitioners and the community can make a stand in advocacy and support.
As we begin this week of Black Breastfeeding Awareness, let is be a time where we educate, support and uplift one another. So much vital information has been shared about breastfeeding during this month alone. Black moms definitely benefit from learning how breastfeeding can benefit their babies. Increased knowledge can offset many of the health risk correlations due to our cultural susceptibility like upper respiratory infections and Type II diabetes to asthma, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and childhood obesity.
Much love to all the black/brown mamas nursing, advocating, being, and becoming lactation educators, birth workers, for spreading awareness. Much love to the culturally competent breastfeeding leaders and influencers, while there are a few they do exist.
Within the mother-hood we all deserve support and this includes realizing the same type and amount of support is not afforded to all groups of moms based on the color of their skin – and even if you aren’t of color this info is still very vital. It’s okay to stand beside us and get educated just the same.
Amber Oliver is a married stay-at-home mom of 2 and resides in Maryland. She is also an IBCLC and the mom blogger behind Look What Love Made, focusing on breastfeeding support, Minority & Maternal Mental Health Awareness and Parenting styles. Her own struggles with breastfeeding are what sparked her certification interest, and she enjoys being a clinical and peer support to breastfeeding moms.