by Kari Aist, BCVC Board Member

For decades there has been significant racial inequity in breastfeeding rates when comparing white populations with communities of color. Reputable data from the CDC among other organizations highlight the sad reality that black women begin breastfeeding and continue breastfeeding in far fewer numbers than white women. That is why for one week every year, the last week in August, we celebrate Black Breastfeeding Week.

We in the (let’s face it) mostly-white breastfeeding support community must work to draw attention to these critically impactful differences in breastfeeding rates and highlight voices in communities of color calling for change. We can assist in changing the status quo both by drawing attention to the negative impact of the dismally low number of black women who are breastfeeding their babies and older nurslings, and by showcasing black breastfeeding champions in our communities.

Celebrating successes and singling out stellar support available in their own communities during this one week of special focus will help black women take to heart the knowledge that they are not alone, that there are others with whom they identify who are, like them, breastfeeding their babies at birth, feeding exclusively for the first six months, and continuing to breastfeed fullterm, even in the face of significant social barriers.

This is something tangible that we, as privileged allies, can do that will help open the field of lactation support to an entire underserved segment of the population previously denied equitable access to sufficient support for this wonderful, normal aspect of parenting.

In order to help normalize breastfeeding among members of the black community, it is imperative that we in the field of lactation support understand WHY our assistance is needed to help change how babies are fed in black populations in our country.

To synopsize Kimberly Seals Allers’s “Top Five Reasons We Need a Black Breastfeeding Week”:

  1. High black infant mortality rates are appalling–black babies are twice, in some places three times, as likely as white babies to die postpartum. Breastfeeding could reduce the rate of infant mortality by 50%. Black babies could be saved by being breastfed!
  2. Starting babies off at birth on a less than optimal form of nourishment increases the incidence of diet-related diseases, which run rampant in black communities. Growing babies on breastmilk means those diseases have less chance to take hold, thanks to human milk’s innumerable nutritional benefits, significantly relating to strengthening immunity.
  3. There is a distressing scarcity of black breastfeeding professionals and lay support people in this country, which perpetuates the myth that black women don’t and can’t breastfeed and can’t become authorities in the field. This lack of ethnic diversity among lactation support people increases the chance that black women will have to go for support to a person who does not share the same ethnic identity and is unaware of or culturally insensitive to black families’ unique needs. [If they go at all–statistics indicate that black breastfeeding women will stop breastfeeding instead of going where they don’t feel welcome or understood.]
  4. “Black women also have unique cultural barriers and a complex history connected to breastfeeding” [d]ue 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.” This includes the tragic, traumatic effects of slave heritage, and the especially devastating knowledge of forced wet nursing among the slave population.
  5. There is a “Food Desert” condition in many black communities wherein access to support for the feeding of the most optimal first food, breastmilk, is scarce. Telling someone that “breast is best” without offering a means of support is cruel; lack of access to knowledgeable support is a sad reality of life in many black communities.

This should not be taken to mean that other groups’ needs are to be ignored, or that conditions in other marginalized or even mainstream communities are unimportant. The quality of life of all babies matters, and how they are fed is a key aspect of that. This is the one week out of the year when we focus on the special needs of black families with regard to breastfeeding. Black babies’ lives matter TOO, and black women CAN breastfeed. For the last week in August of each year we can make that our focus, and hope our efforts help bring about significant positive social change.