Today marks the 4th annual Black Breastfeeding Week and as a black doula, a black woman and a black woman who hopes (G-d willing) to be a black mother who breastfeeds, I am always so happy when this week shows up.
I sort of live for pictures of women nursing. Nothing can make me squeal or sign or go "Awww" like a photo of a bright eyed babe sucking from it's parent. And while I do love a video of a breast crawl and absolutely think that nursing infants are the bees knees, nothing makes my heart flutter like photos of toddlers nursing. Something about their expressive eyes, their long limbs, there giant milky smiles makes me so happy.
While there have been some serious strides in the way that our society views breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding, many parents that I've spoken to (or read about online) have experienced discrimination and ignorance around where and when it's appropriate to nurse a child and for how long. While there is extensive research on the benefits not only of nursing, but nursing children into toddlerhood, it's still very much considered a taboo.
Black Breastfeeding week was created to address the disparity between black women who nurse and white women who nurse. While sometimes difficult to get going, nursing is by and large the cheapest and most natural way to feed a baby*, so why aren't black women given the same "fighting chance" at this free nutrition than their white counterparts?
This is what the Black Breastfeeding Week Website has to say: " The most recent CDC data show that 75% of white women have ever breastfed versus 58.9% of black women. The fact that racial disparity in initiation and even bigger one for duration has lingered for so long is reason enough to take 7 days to focus on the issue..." It goes on to list these Top Five Reasons We Need Black BreastFeeding Week:
1. The high black infant mortality rate: Black babies are dying at twice the rate (in some place, nearly triple) the rate of white babies. This is a fact. The high infant mortality rate among black infants is mostly to their being disproportionately born too small, too sick or too soon. These babies need the immunities and nutritional benefit of breast milk the most. According to the CDC, increased breastfeeding among black women could decrease infant mortality rates by as much as 50%. So when I say breastfeeding is a life or death matter, this is what I mean. And it is not up for debate or commenting. This is the only reason I have ever needed to do this work, but I will continue with the list anyway.
2. High rates of diet-related disease: When you look at all the health conditions that breast milk—as the most complete “first food,” has been proven to reduce the risks of—African American children have them the most. From upper respiratory infections and Type II diabetes to asthma, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and childhood obesity—these issues are rampant in our communities. And breast milk is the best preventative medicine nature provides.
3. Lack of diversity in lactation field: Not only are there blatant racial disparities in breastfeeding rates, there is a blatant disparity in breastfeeding leadership as well. It is not debatable that breastfeeding advocacy is white female-led. This is a problem. For one, it 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 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.
As a quick note, when I first came to the PNW I was shocked to learn that there was only one International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in the state of Washington who is a person of color. ONE WOMAN.
4. Unique cultural barriers among black women: While many of the “booby traps”™ to breastfeeding are universal, Black women also have unique cultural barriers and a complex history connected to breastfeeding. From our role as wet nurses in slavery being forced to breastfeed and nurture our slave owners children often to the detriment of our children, to the lack of mainstream role models and multi-generational support , to our own stereotyping within our community—we have a different dialogue around breastfeeding and it needs special attention.
5. Desert-Like Conditions in Our Communities: Many African American communities are “first food deserts”—it’s a term I coined to describe the desert like conditions in many urban areas I visited where women cannot access support for the best first food-breast milk. 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. Please watch this video and educate yourself on the conditions in many vulnerable communities about what you can do (beyond leaving comments on blogs) to help transform these areas from “first food deserts” into First Food Friendly neighborhoods.
Posted August 19, 2014 in: 2014 by Kimberly Seals Allers
I'm so excited to help spread awareness about the need for greater support for people who hope to nurse their babies, especially shifting that focus this week on black women and our unique needs.
*I want to acknowledge that the term "breast is best" is hugely problematic and that for some folks, breastfeeding is not an option or not an option in the traditional boob to mouth style. I think that a fed baby is best and we all do it in ways that our best for us as individuals.
Hi there! I'm Erika Davis and I'm a doula working in the Seattle and South Puget Sound area.