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Many new moms look forward to the bonding experience of breastfeeding a new baby. But in the U.S., there’s a mismatch between global recommendations surrounding breastfeeding (six months of exclusive nursing, says The World Health Organization) and making those recommendations a reality. A lack of government-backed parental leave and postpartum support, combined with a workforce that all-too-often penalizes new mothers, makes it hard for even the most well-intended mom to stick with breastfeeding.
For Black mothers? The disparities are even greater:
While data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that, overall, about 83 percent of mothers in this country breastfed their babies when they’re born, only 69 percent of Black mothers do.
The barriers Black women face when it comes to nursing are many—starting with statistics that suggest Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy or birth complications than white women and that their babies have higher mortality rates.
“There is disparity in breastfeeding leadership as well as breastfeeding advocacy,” adds Ruth Gordon-Martin, a postpartum doula and founder of CODDLE, a postpartum self-care company. “It is white female led. Looking at this from the outside in, it creates a misconception that only white women breastfeed.” And if Black moms only see white moms breastfeeding? Gordon-Martin goes on to say, there are no role models that they can relate to.
Many Black communities are also "first food deserts," she says—desert-like conditions in many urban areas where women cannot access breastfeeding support. “It is not fair to ask women, any woman, to breastfeed when she lives in a community that is devoid of support. It is a set up for failure.”
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The stigma of breastfeeding is heightened for the Black woman. Black women have historically been over-sexualized. There is also the traumatic history of Black women as wet nurses during slavery. It is painful to think about and can make it feel like breastfeeding is associated with the lack of choice. This negatively impacts our breastfeeding journey. Creating a new narrative that centers our experiences too will help. Advocacy for breastfeeding needs to be inclusive. #blackmomsmatter #worldbreastfeedingweek . . Thank you for these beautiful images @aqueerphotog ✨✨✨✨
Often, the lactation field is also not culturally sensitive enough to Black moms, Gordon-Martin says. “Black women have a cultural history connected to breastfeeding,” she says, noting roles such as wet nurses in slavery, who were forced to nurse the slave owners children at the expense of her own. “If your great-great-great-grandma didn’t breastfeed her kids, then great-grandma didn’t, all the way down to where we are today, that generational knowledge and know-how was not passed down. This is the history for Black women and that’s why there is such a push in terms of advocacy and a special week designated as Black Breastfeeding Week.”
The Pump Act and the Momnibus Act:
Two important legislative measures have made positive moves this year as we as a society advocate to remove barriers to motherhood that Black mothers face.
First, the The Pump Act which was signed into action at the end of 2022, seeks to protect working mothers need to pump so they can continue to provide breastmilk for their baby even after returning to work. Black women, particularly Black women with low income, return to work sooner than their white counterparts. The Pump Act is working to safeguard nursing parents' rights but also extend the duration of breastfeeding for many. Research has shown that working mothers who have adequate time and space to pump are 2.3 times as likely to be exclusively breastfeeding at six months than those without such access.
Second The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act address the maternal mortality crisis through historic investments that comprehensively address every driver of maternal mortality, morbidity, and disparities in the United States.
In light of Black Breastfeeding Week, August 25th to 31st, we've outlined a few additional supportive measures for Black mothers on their breastfeeding journey. These tips can be helpful from before your babies are even born to after you return to work.
Know where you're coming from:
Breastfeeding can be hard—but your expectations of how it’ll be, in large, depend on your cultural background and family, says Gordon-Martin. So: Ask yourself questions such as, Did your mom, aunts, or grandmother breastfeed? What was their experience? What did they say when you told them you’re planning to breastfeed? What about your spouse? Did his/her mom breastfeed? These answers can help form a base surrounding your feelings about breastfeeding, she says. And once you know where you’re starting from? You’ll be far more equipped to figure out next steps.
Make your home a nursing haven:
“All too often no one tells expecting mothers that they can prepare their house for breastfeeding,” says Gordon-Martin. Think ahead: What spot will be most comfortable for you? Will you want a nursing pillow, breast pads, or nursing bras? “Preparing your house is usually an afterthought and happens once you get home with your newborn. That is an already stressful time. Don’t add to it unnecessarily.” Planning things out in advance—even if it’s just one comfy space in your home—can help make your experience (and your baby’s) more enjoyable.
Build a support system:
“Your success with breastfeeding depends heavily on the support you have with breastfeeding,” says Gordon-Martin. She suggests having a conversation with the people around you about your decision to breastfeed. Then, be sure to ask for what you need from those around you—whether that’s snacks for yourself while you’re feeding the baby, someone to take care of the baby after you feed them, or simple encouragement. “If people don’t have experience with breastfeeding—by seeing it done or doing it themselves—it can be hard for them to understand and know how to support you,” she says.
Also: Since in-person support is harder than ever these days, look into virtual support options such as CODDLE, robyn, and other outlets that can connect you with (virtual!) providers who can ease your postpartum transition.
Breastfeeding classes might look a little bit different today but they’re still out there! And even virtual ones can pay off big time. La Leche International, for one, has tons of free online resources and companies like Milkology, Lactation Link, Milky Mama, and others offer online courses. Groups such as Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association also offer online webinars and meet-ups.
You could even connect with a lactation consultant virtually to have some questions answered. Gordon-Martin also recommends some reading (books that were a part of her doula training!), including The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche International, Work, Pump, Repeat by Jessica Shortall, The Nursing Mother’s Companion by Kathleen Huggins, and Latch by Robin Kaplan.
Know your rights:
Black women, particularly those with low income, return to work earlier than women of other races and are, thus, more likely to experience breastfeeding struggles, according to the CDC. No matter when you return to work, it’s important to know your rights. For one: The Break Time for Nursing Mothers law requires that employers give new moms “reasonable” break times to pump and requires them to provide a private place to pump that’s not a bathroom. The aforementioned Pump Act also provides additional rights for working mamas. If you’re a pumping mama? Keep up with companies like Mamava (which sells free-standing lactation pods for office spaces, airports, and other public places). Connecting with a like minded population of pumping mothers can help you feel supported in your journey.