Motherhood and Race: Ways to Support Black Breastfeeding Moms
Aug 19, 2020
“Empowering, beautiful, amazing, and rewarding.”
Parents use those words to describe their experiences in providing breast milk to their babies and every family deserves the chance to have those emotions. The reality, though, is that many parents who planned on breastfeeding instead say they feel, “Challenged, exhausted, isolated and defeated.”
While breastfeeding may come easy for a few women, for most there are significant challenges. For Black women, the road to successful breastfeeding can be much harder, if not impossible, given barriers they face which have been rooted in racism and bias.
By the Numbers
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants receive only breastmilk for the first 6 months of their life and then up to a year or more as desired by mom and baby. In the U.S, only 69% of Black mothers ever start breastfeeding, compared with 86% of white mothers; by 6 months of age, those numbers are much lower.
Research suggests that twice as many Black babies die each year as white babies due shorter breastfeeding duration. It’s estimated that if 90% of U.S. mothers provided only breastmilk to their babies for the first 6 months of life, 900 infant lives would be saved yearly.
Breastfeeding disparities between Black and white women are real. The barriers that exist lead to lower breastfeeding rates in Black communities.
“No One Ever Told Me…”
The reasons breastfeeding is so good for both mom and baby are not often discussed with parents.
Less Education and Support From the Health Care Community
The health care community has made it harder for more Black families to successfully breastfeed by:
Giving out formula samples
Not helping mothers breastfeed the first hour after birth
Providing in-hospital formula without a medical need
Failing to help with breastfeeding problems
Lack of Peer, Family and Social Support
Strong support is essential for successful breastfeeding. Lack of family and social support exists in many Black communities where breastfeeding has not been widespread for many historical and social reasons. When difficulties in breastfeeding occur, a woman can feel alone and discouraged not knowing where to turn for help. A mother may give up on breastfeeding, even before the baby is first seen in the pediatrician’s office.
Concerns About Balancing Breastfeeding and Employment
A higher percentage of Black women (60%) work outside the home than all other groups of women and are more likely to be the only source of income for the family. A federal law protects a breastfeeding mother at work by requiring most employers to provide time and a private location to express her milk. Still, pumping at work is hard. Mothers still worry about consequences from their employer and economic challenges, as breaks for pumping are unpaid.
We Can Make a Difference
The barriers to breastfeeding are many and different for each family.
It is important to call attention to the racial disparities that exist. These disparities lead to worse health outcomes for Black women and their children. Every mother who chooses to breastfeed deserves education and support, but even more attention needs to be given to those who face the most challenges.
Helping one family at a time, we can create a web of breastfeeding support which will allow all mothers to feel the empowering, beautiful, amazing and rewarding benefits of breastfeeding.
Alana Milton, MD, is a staff physician in the Section of Primary Care Pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. She is a certified lactation counselor and is a co-leader in the Primary Care Network’s breastfeeding quality improvement efforts.
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