Why Black Breastfeeding Week Is Important
For many families across the nation, the end of August marks the end to the long lazy bubbly days of summer and a return to regimented schedules and academic pursuits. It also marks the start of Black Breastfeeding Week- August 25-31. Black Breastfeeding Week was created last year by three African-American breastfeeding advocates; Kimberly Seals Allers, a journalist and author of the Mocha Mom Manuals, Kiddada Green, founder of the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association, and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, co-author of “Free to Breastfeed; Voices of Black Mothers” These three ‘titans of lactation’ saw the need to celebrate African-American mothers in their choice to breastfeed their babies, and launched a nation-wide promotion.
Black Breastfeeding Week was born with great fanfare, and great backlash. Many demanded to know why Black women should get their own ‘breastfeeding week.’ What many don’t know and understand the dismal landscape for breastfeeding in the African-American community. According to the Centers for Disease Control, from 2004–2008, (latest data available) the percentage of women who initiated breastfeeding was74.3%for Whites, 54.4% for Blacks and 80.4% for Latinas. (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5911a2.htm) While the number of women who elect to breastfeed their babies has increased in recent years, the disparity between White mothers and Black mothers still persist. These numbers indicate a need for greater social, familial and healthcare provider supports, especially for African-American women.
I am an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and a woman of color. I run a free community-based breastfeeding clinic in the urban core of my city. I work daily in the trenches with African-American mothers who want to breastfeed their babies but find it difficult to connect with community resources without extraordinary effort on their part. Some women are fortunate to be able to access breastfeeding assistance with relative ease. Some women have support groups right in their own neighborhoods. Some women can afford to pay professionals to come to their homes and provide guidance and instruction. This does not describe the women I work with. The women I serve, mostly African-American, often live at or below poverty level. They may be generationally impoverished, or situationally impoverished but one thing is for certain- all this access to breastfeeding help that health care professionals deem imperative to breastfeeding success is not accessible to them.
The women I serve don't have easy access to breastfeeding support groups, except perhaps at their local hospital. But even those are not without challenges. The women I work with tell me (because I always ask) that they may go their entire hospital stay without anyone mentioning breastfeeding; that their babies are given bottles of formula without their knowledge or consent; and that nurses actively discourage them from breastfeeding. Among professionals, we call this 'provider bias.' It is rampant in healthcare. Physicians, nurses, even IBCLCs don't help because they either a) don't believe African-American women will breastfeed their babies, or they b) don't believe these women will be successful at it. It is also because health care providers may lack proper knowledge about delivering care in a way that is culturally appropriate and acceptable. For example, talking to an African-American woman about breastfeeding without drawing her partner or mother into the conversation could be a problem. Knowing and understanding who her champions are and engaging them in the process is vital.
For the brave few new mothers that garner the courage to venture outside their communities to find help and support they so desperately need, they may or may not find acceptance waiting for them when they get there. Last month on the ‘Black Women Do Breastfeed’ Facebook page, an African-American woman shared how she got up the courage to attend a meeting in another community, and while she was there, no one spoke to her or acknowledged her presence. -I know what you're thinking, that would never happen in “our” neighborhood, right? Perhaps it wouldn't. -But look around at your breastfeeding support groups. How diverse are they? -How comfortable would you feel in a gathering if the racial mix was reversed?
African-American women have yet to find a place for themselves in the breastfeeding landscape. That's where Black Breastfeeding Week comes in. We are actively creating a space for ourselves by declaring our own stake in breastfeeding, holding our own private celebration. The Facebook page and website engages women from around the country all year long with local and national events, updates, and articles, videos and other educational materials. African-American women can send in their breastfeeding photos and have them posted. They may not see breastfeeding images of themselves in the media otherwise. How does this week work across the nation? It's imperative to promote breastfeeding in the African-American community so that mothers and babies can share in the many short and long term health benefits. Black Breastfeeding Week is here to stay to show African-American women that breastfeeding is for them and their babies. Black Breastfeeding Week is important because we need to help all women become successful in meeting their breastfeeding goals and too many of us, have been left out of the picture.