Black Breastfeeding Week (BBW) was launched in the United States in 2013 by Kimberly Seals Allers. The week is about raising awareness concerning disparities in Black breastfeeding rates and uplifting restorative justice for parents of today. Black maternal ancestors were coerced into breeding and breastfeeding children of their white enslavers. Reflecting on this horrific fact causes many modern Black mothers to view breastfeeding in a negative light. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women have the lowest breastfeeding initiation rates at 64%. Black women also reported the shortest breastfeeding duration (only 14% of babies are breastfed at 6 months of age).”
The first recorded set of identical African-American quadruplets were born to Pete and Annie Mae Fultz in North Carolina in 1946. Dr. Fred Klenner, who delivered the children, named each child after different women in his family: Mary Ann, Mary Louise, Mary Alice and Mary Catherine. The Fultz Quads’ parents were illiterate, to which Klenner exploited by using their daughters for fame and money. Klenner negotiated an undisclosed deal with PET Milk to use the quads in an ad campaign that was pandered to the Black community. Klenner reaped the most benefit, while the daughters only received a farm, a nurse, food, and medical care as compensation.
Since then, infant formula companies have continued to play a key role in fueling body feeding disparities. In the 1970s, massive marketing campaigns created the idea that formula is a product for sophisticated people, perpetuating breastfeeding as an out-of-date practice. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Black women are still using formulas at higher rates.
BlackBreastfeedingWeek.org states that the infant mortality rate for Black babies is double that of white babies. This can often be due to premature birth, low birth weight, and illnesses related to premature births. Some medical professionals treat patients without regard or overlook serious concerns due to running a busy office space. There is a recent upsurge of Black birthers requesting a doula at their hospital birth. Some cut cost by laboring at home and even communing in home births. It is important for parents to feel seen and heard by their care providers. We are in a time where many families are returning to communal birthing surrounded by safe support.
Sixty percent of mothers do not breastfeed for as long as they intend to. How long a mother breastfeeds can be influenced by many factors such as issues with lactation and latching, concerns about infant nutrition/weight, or concomitant medications. Culturally-relevant lactation support, both during the first few days and in later months, can certainly make a huge difference. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breastfeeding can actually save Black babies’ lives by decreasing infant mortality rates by as much as 50%. Black Breastfeeding Week was created in response to this need and to increase knowledge of evidence-based information within the Black community.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for the first six months with continued breastfeeding while introducing appropriate complementary foods for one year or longer.”
Listed below are some critical statistics to ponder as we help evolve the Black birthing experience.
- Fewer Black infants (73.7%) are ever breastfed compared with Asian infants (90%), non-Hispanic White infants (86.7%) and Hispanic infants (84.1%).
- Infants eligible for and receiving the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are less likely to ever be breastfed (77.0%) than infants eligible, but not receiving WIC (82.1%), and infants ineligible for WIC (92.1%).
- Younger mothers aged 20 to 29 years are less likely to ever breastfeed (82.4%) than mothers aged 30 years or older (85.2%).
While national estimates of breastfeeding initiation and duration have consistently improved over the last decade, differences in breastfeeding rates by race have persisted. To increase the rate of breastfeeding among Black infants, interventions are needed to address barriers experienced disproportionately by Black mothers. These include early return to work, inadequate receipt of breastfeeding information from providers, and lack of access to professional breastfeeding support.
A U.S.-based review of randomized trials evaluating breastfeeding interventions targeting minorities showed that group prenatal education, peer counseling interventions, breastfeeding-specific clinic appointments, and enhanced hospital practices/WIC-based services positively affected breastfeeding outcomes among minority women.
Currently, 93 U.S. hospitals participate in EMPower Breastfeeding: Enhancing Maternity Practices† in 24 states, where the disparities in breastfeeding rates between Black and white infants is greatest.
Benefits of Breastfeeding
Women who breastfeed exclusively are more likely to lose weight postpartum than women who breastfeed non-exclusively and formula-feed. WIC counselors have a significant impact on African Americans’ and Hispanics’ decisions to breastfeed given that African American women (19.2%) and Hispanic women (39.2%) make up the largest minority proportion of the total population of WIC women.
The high infant mortality rate among Black infants is often due to their being disproportionately born too small, too sick or too soon. These babies need the immunities and nutritional benefits of breast milk the most. Human milk, as the most complete “first food,” is proven to reduce the risks of diseases such as SIDS, type 2 diabetes, asthma, and childhood obesity. Breast milk is the best preventative medicine provided by nature. “First food deserts”—a term coined to describe the desert-like conditions in many urban areas where parents cannot access nutritional support.
Birthwork and Lactation Advocacy
Birthwork and breastfeeding advocacy has become white female-led. Many of the lactation professionals, though well-intentioned, are not culturally competent or relevant enough to properly serve diverse families. From our role as wet nurses in slavery, to the lack of Black mainstream examples and multi-generational support; to stereotyping within the community—we have a different dialogue around breastfeeding and it needs special attention. Changing language and associations that were created to discourage biological practices helps to create inclusive spaces for educating and supporting families.