August is National Breastfeeding Month and Black Breastfeeding Week is celebrated during the last week of the month.
Black Breastfeeding Week was birthed out of the need to raise awareness around the unique circumstances and challenges facing black mothers. For example, a 2016 study conducted by the California Department of Health found that statistics around black mothers who breastfed trended among the lowest in the state.
The World Health Organization has demonstrated heroic efforts to regulate marketing for formula and encourage breastfeeding since the early 1990’s. Despite these efforts, challenges around breastfeeding in the workplace, lack of lactation education, social transitions and the grim history around slavery and wet-nursing in America continue to negatively impact the decisions of many black mothers to breastfeed their children.
The creators of Black Breastfeeding Week claimed this time to help educate and advocate for breastfeeding within the black community.
Research has shown that some of the myths and challenges surrounding breastfeeding in the black community include:
- Hyper-sexualization of the breast: Many people view breasts primarily as sexual ornaments, even when mothers are actively nursing. Breasts are the most efficient tools in breastfeeding practices. Under healthy circumstances, there is no need to check temperatures, sterilize nipples, no unnecessary waste with plastic bottle productions and it’s free, among other benefits.
- Breastfeeding will make babies too clingy: All babies are different. Breastfeeding is the best form of nutrition for babies’ developing bodies and brains. Breastfed babies are typically held moreand this increases bonding between baby and mom.
- Dads/Partners don’t have a role in breastfeeding: Breastfeeding can be very challenging and mothers need the support of partners and family to maintain this process. Partners can support nursing moms by getting educated, joining support groups, bottle-feeding if possible, providing moral support, preparing meals that help increase milk production and being empathetic. Organizations like ROBEcan provide valuable information for dads and partners, who are supporting nursing mothers.
- Breastfeeding will keep you from getting pregnant: This is misleading. Breastfeeding can be an effective birth control option if mothers breastfeed exclusively during the first six months. This is called the LAM (lactational amenorrhea method). After the initial six months, mothers who breastfeed should explore additional birth control methods to create space between pregnancies.
- Your milk will dry up after six months: Your body is designed to provide the right amount of milk for your baby for as long as the demand exists. Breastfeeding is a supply and demand system. The World Health Organization recommends mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first six months.
This is a short list of frequently expressed concerns around breastfeeding. In addition to this list, many mothers face overwhelming challenges to maintain nursing and pumping practices while working and while being in social settings. Like most other social challenges, education around these issues contributes to positive progress.
The benefits of breastfeeding children exclusively are overwhelming. Even if mothers are unable to nurse exclusively, the long-term advantages of breastfeeding include:
- Protection from childhood illness, such as diarrhea and pneumonia which are the two leading causes of child mortality internationally
- Reduces riskof breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type II diabetes and postpartum depression in mothers
- Decreased likelihood of babies developing type II diabetes in the future
- Assists mothers with weight loss after pregnancy
- Breast-milk contains natural antibodiesthat cannot be found in infant formula
- Improved digestion for infants and decreased likelihood of developing digestive issues later in life
- Increased performance on intelligence testslater in life
Before these findings around the benefits of breastfeeding were publicly available, social and cultural transformation impacted the rise of formula-use over breastfeeding.
For example, research has shown that there was a major decline in breastfeeding during the 1940s. This change could be correlated to the large number of women who entered the workforce during World War II. Additionally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 created professional opportunities that were previously denied to African Americans.
Many black women who were able to secure professional jobs were forced to choose between nursing and the economic stability of their families. Many women, understandably, choose economic stability.
These historic events had important ripple effects the generational support for breastfeeding in the black community. By the 1960s liquid-ready formula was placed on the market and breastfeeding rates continued to decline through the 1970s.
Since then, research has continued to prove the resounding benefits of breastfeeding over formula-use and women have made conscious decisions to breastfeed their babies.
Federal and local governments have shown support for nursing mothers through labor laws and policies. In the Inland Empire, cities like Rancho Cucamonga have made landmark policies to support mothers who choose to breastfeed.
Los Angeles’ BreastfeedLA initiative supports breastfeeding education and facilitation.
There are an increasing number of resources available to help mothers who want to choose to breastfeed their babies. Continued education and community support is a critical part of that journey.
Written by Amber Bolden on behalf of the Sankofa Birthworkers Collective of the Inland Empire (SBCIE).
To learn more about providing culturally competent breastfeeding support in the black community, you can join one of this week’s BreastfeedLA live webinars (Ripple Effects of Historical Trauma and Resilience on Breastfeeding Outcomes in the African-American Community) hosted by Sankofa’s Dr. Sayida Peprah, PsyD on August 30.
To learn more about SBCIE, e-mail us at Sankofabirthworkerscollective@gmail.com.