With the 4th Annual Black Breastfeeding Week (BBW) coming to a close I decided to really sit down and think about the purpose of the movement. Much like the Black Lives Matter movement, many would ask, “why is this even needed?” To be honest, I only found out about the existence of this week the day before it started but, I never questioned it. I’m down for anything that supports and uplifts my community. So, I immediately started doing breastfeeding geared videos and social media posts all week in order to spread the word about this event. I’m sure my followers are sick of hearing about BBW but at least they are all aware! Now that the week has come to a close, I want to look past the surface and really dig into the issue of breastfeeding within the black community.
Women of all colors face obstacles when it comes to breastfeeding. Juggling work, while trying to pump & maintain a supply is difficult. Especially when women in today’s society are expected to, and many times have no choice but to work at least one full time job. Many of those jobs that I speak of do not offer a paid maternity leave so these women are forced to cut bonding time down with their newborn and get right back to work. Outside of work, the societal taboo of breastfeeding, especially doing so in public, hinders a lot of mothers. Alyssa Milano famously told Wendy Williams off after Wendy suggested that feeding your baby in a restaurant is somehow inappropriate and that women should go to the car or bathroom. Frankly, only someone who has never had to do this would say something like that. Seriously, Wendy? You want me to sit in the car to feed Baby P while you talk loudly with food in your mouth at the dinner table? But we’re disgusting. Ok girl. Why don’t you go eat on the toilet?
Even with all of the issues that women in general face, why is it that in 2016 Black women still have the lowest numbers of breastfeeding among any race in this country?
According to an article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2016, Black mothers are least likely to initiate breastfeeding. Only 61% do so and at an average duration of 6.4 weeks. Now, 61% is more than half and that might not seem like a bad number until you compare it to the English-speaking, Hispanic mothers who breastfeed at 90% for an average duration of 10.4 weeks and white mothers who initiate at 78% and breastfeed for an average duration of 16.5 weeks (McKinney et. al, AAP). By six months there is a drastic decline in women across the board. According to the CDC, breastfeeding drops from 81.5% to 51.8% nationally after 6 months. With black women only starting out at 61%, I’m afraid to see that number at 6 months.
I can’t act like breastfeeding doesn’t come with challenges. I have made it 5.5 months so far and I am planning to continue for at least another 4 months. Many women don’t make it past 6 months because of work and the subpar maternity leave programs offered by employers. I took 12 weeks and for only 4 of those weeks I received my full pay. I was able to survive with the help of my fiancée and mother but this is not the case for many black women. A lot of us are poor and not being paid for months at a time is just not an option. Expressing milk at work presents its own challenges. Even though it has been recently state mandated that employers give their employees the space and opportunity to pump, this can be challenging depending on your field of work. Not to mention that just being away from your baby and going longer without expressing milk can reduce your supply. All of these things make that 6 months to a year goal a lot harder to reach.
Based on the statistic I mentioned earlier, we see that White women breastfeed the longest. They are more likely to work at a company that allows free access to a pumping room, paid maternity leave, as well as longer maternity leave compared to poor women. Unfortunately, wealth is clearly a factor in the ease and length of a woman’s breastfeeding experience.
Besides wealth and economic status, culture and education plays a huge role in breastfeeding. Here in the west, a woman’s breasts are highly sexualized. Why else would a woman be shamed for pulling her breast out in the mall to feed her child? It’s because we as a society can’t separate sex from breasts, even though they were created for the sole purpose of nourishing babies. Breasts have been sexualized in this country to the detriment of women & infant’s health. In my personal life, I have had a lot of support from my fiancé, friends and family to breastfeed. But if you simply go to Facebook and read the comments on any picture about public breastfeeding you will find women telling their stories of backlash and criticism for distracting the husbands of strangers while they breastfeed their babies or worse, you will see women proclaiming that they could never give their child their breast when their husband has already laid claim to it.
Somehow, somewhere breastfeeding has turned into an act to be criticized when it should be a natural, automatic thing for new mothers. This could have to do with the fact that the baby formula industry makes millions of dollars peddling their powder milk as an option, equally yoked with breastmilk. “Originally, synthetic formula was meant as a more nutritious alternative to animal milk for infants whose mothers had died in childbirth or otherwise were not available to breastfeed”. (wsj) It was never meant as an alternative to human milk. Not to sound judge-y of women who use formula. There are many medical reasons that women have to use it, and like I said, work and other factors can contribute to women not being able to maintain breastfeeding but these are symptoms of a system that has failed us. But the cultural taboo of breastfeeding absolutely needs to stop.
There has been progress in breastfeeding numbers over the past ten or so years but black women still lag behind in numbers when compared to other racial groups. Many sources like the CDC and American Academy for Pediatrics say that education and support are key. This brings us back to BBW. During my first 7-14 days of breastfeeding I wanted to quit many times but the support of my family, namely my mother kept me going. All of the young mothers I knew were breastfeeding and I wanted to be a part of the number badly. So my intention was definitely there but so was the support. There have been many times that I have reached out to these mothers on Facebook and received an outpouring of support, advice, and encouragement.
Every young, new mom doesn’t have this but they should! If they did, I think the numbers of breastfeeding mothers in our community would greatly thrive.
BBW & organizations like Black Women Do Breastfeed have done a lot of work on social media to create support and their own brand of marketing to promote black breastfeeding that I truly hope continues. This movement is only a few years old but I pray that it doesn’t disappear. Whether they know it or not they are slowly changing the stigma of breastfeeding in the black community. I would venture to say that in the next two years our percentage of mothers who initiate breastfeeding will jump from 61% to 71%. Now is the time for us to take control of the conversation and change it from shaming to empowerment. Step out of the public restroom and get back to that dinner table. We can be sexual beings and mothers, we don’t have to choose.
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