It seems obvious (to me, anyway) that breastfeeding is the way nature intended for human mothers to feed human babies. One – okay, two – of the main reasons we are classed as mammals are these mammary glands on our chest. Every mammal species produces milk to feed their young.
The benefits of breastfeeding are countless, yet not widely known. For example, breastfeeding reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, a top cause of infant mortality. Breast milk contains unique immunizing properties as well as substances that protect baby’s brain and gut, which cannot be synthesized in a lab. The infant’s saliva sends signals to mom’s body that cause her body to customize the milk to her infant’s nutritional needs – and the milk composition changes over time as the infant grows. No formula can do that, even though it is a helpful substitute if mom is unable to breastfeed.
Nursing also helps the new mom to lose her pregnancy weight faster, reduce the size of her uterus faster, and lower the risk of postpartum hemorrhaging, postpartum depression, and even breast and ovarian cancers. Exclusive breastfeeding can also delay the return of the mom’s menstrual cycle.
Research has identified so many benefits that top public health organizations like the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics encourage moms to exclusively breastfeed their children for 6 months, and continue breastfeeding while introducing other foods for the first year of life or longer if mother and baby want to keep going. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization advocates that babies receive breast milk for two full years, and in several other countries, it is common for mothers to nurse toddlers up to three or four years of age.
In a culture saturated with pin-up girls and porn stars, however, breasts have become so sexualized that some people have a big problem with moms feeding their babies within sight of anyone. Black women’s bodies are more sexualized and more policed, both by law enforcement and the general public, so we feel the impact even more. Nursing moms have had to fight against being banished to a toilet or a closet if their babies happen to get hungry outside the privacy of their homes. They’ve had to press for legally protected breaks at work so they can pump milk – an important step to keep their milk supply sufficient to nourish their little ones and to avoid the pain of engorgement, when their breasts are overfull. And they’ve had to ignore – or confront – the dirty looks or bold-faced slick talk of passers-by and family members who don’t understand or support breastfeeding.
Then of course, there’s our illustrious presidential administration, which recently shocked the world (again) by opposing pro-breastfeeding language in a World Health Organization resolution. As usual, Trump and his folk are out of step with most of the world, which has gotten on board with breastfeeding promotion thanks to strong advocacy efforts such as World Breastfeeding Week, an annual campaign that started in 1992 and is now observed in more than 120 countries worldwide.
Although this increased global awareness has improved America’s breastfeeding rates overall, black mothers still tend to lag behind white mothers both in terms of starting to nurse their children and how long they nurse. According to one CDC study, “Interventions are needed to address barriers experienced disproportionately by black mothers, including earlier return to work, inadequate receipt of breastfeeding information from providers, and lack of access to professional breastfeeding support.”
Six years ago, three black moms who are also breastfeeding advocates created Black Breastfeeding Week at the end of August to bring even more awareness to these barriers. The week of events includes lactation education for moms and their families and friends, mommy meetups, and increased visibility of lactation consultants and support groups who can help moms facing challenges. One of the founder’s lists “the lack of mainstream role models and multi-generational support , to our own stereotyping within our community” among the “unique cultural barriers” black moms face.
The challenges can be quite intimidating. I speak from personal experience, here. When I had my son in 2017, I assumed that something as natural as breastfeeding would come naturally to both of us. As it turns out, walking is also natural, but you know how long it takes a baby to master that skill.
I did take a class, but I didn’t read through the materials very thoroughly. I didn’t make getting a pump a priority because I had been told that pumping too soon could cause problems. By the time I had to actually practice what I learned, I was exhausted and alone in the room with my son. (So much for all those magazine and blog articles advising new moms to let everybody wait on you!) The pregnancy-related tendinitis in my wrists made it very hard to use any of the nursing positions I had learned for holding his head up so he could latch deeply.
“A study of hospital support for breastfeeding indicated that facilities located in zip codes with higher percentages of black residents than the national average were less likely to meet five indicators for supportive breastfeeding practices.” – CDC
I also faced what is probably every nursing mom’s number one anxiety: am I making enough milk? When you’re bottle feeding, this question doesn’t come up because you’ve measured out an exact amount, and you can mix up more as long as you have more powder and clean water. As a nursing mom, you are dependent on three things to tell you if baby’s getting enough food: your baby’s behavior (e.g., relaxing, falling asleep and unlatching after a feed), the number of wet and dirty diapers, and his or her weight gain to ensure that baby is getting enough food.
All babies lose a little bit of weight right after they’re born, which they should quickly start to gain back. My son’s weight and diaper count was kind of concerning to his pediatrician, and his fussiness even after a long nursing session was concerning to our relatives. None of these folks were anti-breastfeeding, per se, but they weren’t opposed to giving him formula either, even though “supplementing” is one of the fastest ways to destroy your milk supply in the early days. (Skipping a feeding tells your body you don’t need as much milk, so it makes less the next time.) Some doctors are ever-ready to give the nursing-challenged mom free samples of formula as a quick fix.
I tried to get an appointment with a lactation consultant, but as the CDC mentioned, it is not that easy for black women because there aren’t that many in our community compared to in predominantly white communities, and private consultants can be pricey. The local La Leche League support group wasn’t scheduled to meet for another three weeks, and I couldn’t wait that long.
In the end, I got scared late one night because my son was still crying and hand expression (which I didn’t know how to do properly yet) hadn’t produced enough visible milk to convince me or my mom that he was getting enough to eat. So before he was even a week old, I started feeding him a combination of breast milk followed by formula. Introducing formula was an ordeal in itself, because not every formula is right for every baby. We went through constipation, gas, and allergic reactions before we found one that he could tolerate.
I felt so disappointed by it all, but I had to respect the role formula played while my body played catch up. It also motivated me to take a lactation specialist course several months later, which is where I learned much of what I’ve shared in this article. I also learned that formula is not the only option for a mother who is not producing enough milk. While most women have been able to nurse, there have always been provisions made for the few who struggle, such as wet nurses, even outside of our ancestors’ historical trauma of being forced nurses for white babies. Nowadays, women who produce a lot of milk can donate their milk to families who are struggling to produce enough.
Why Nursing Moms Need More Support
Other mommies and babies may struggle with getting a deep latch that lets baby get enough milk without hurting momma’s boob, getting the milk out regularly enough so momma doesn’t become engorged or miss feedings and stop producing enough milk. Some moms have to go straight back to work or only get a few weeks to prepare for being away from their new little one. Babies could end up with thrush, they could have a tongue tie or lip tie that affects their ability to suckle. NICU, C-sections, and other medical issues can also impact milk supply and/or the successful start of breastfeeding.
All of this trial and error (and hopefully success) is happening at one of the most sensitive times in a mom’s life: the postpartum period. Her body has just gone through 40 weeks or so of intense hormonal changes, and breastfeeding comes with its own set of hormonal changes. She’s also adjusting to the enormous responsibility of taking care of this tiny, helpless human. And she’s not sleeping very well because her baby is waking up every couple of hours – that tiny stomach can only hold a little milk at a time and it’s digested very fast. As the baby gets older, new challenges come into play like teething, aggressive and acrobatic nursing.
Now imagine going through some or all of this and being constantly challenged by those closest to you. The online support group I joined for black breastfeeding moms was full of horror stories, from husbands or boyfriends who felt jealous of their child’s access to mommy’s boobs to in-laws suggesting the new mommy was getting some kind of sexual thrill from nursing, to friends feeling offended if the new mom nursed her child uncovered anywhere near their men, to well-meaning relatives telling the mom how long it’s acceptable to nurse (“I hope you not gonna be one of those mommas with the baby’s legs dragging the floor and still hanging on your titty!”) For moms who have experienced abuse or sexual violence, nursing can be a major trigger as well.
Stress and sleeplessness are two of the biggest threats to establishing a sufficient milk supply. So during Black Breastfeeding Week it is very necessary to educate the families and friends and support networks of new moms and new babies. It takes a village to raise a child and to feed one too!
With all the benefits and obstacles associated with black women and breastfeeding, I am very thankful for the sisters who created Black Breastfeeding Week and for the growing number of birth workers and lactation supporters within the black community who are devoted to improving not only our breastfeeding rates, but our shockingly high infant and maternal mortality rates, and our overall quality of life, from conception through birth to infancy and beyond.