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The task of feeding a baby is a challenge for many mothers. Along with adjusting to caring for a new baby, navigating the choice to breastfeed or formula feed can cause additional stress. For black mothers, however, race adds another dimension, both in terms of the troubled history of black women and in terms of breastfeeding and existing racial disparities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Black mothers disproportionately face a number of barriers to breastfeeding, including lack of knowledge about breastfeeding; lack of peer, family and social support; insufficient education and support from health facilities; and concerns about breastfeeding and employment”.
Barriers to breastfeeding
The horrific history of breast-feeding that exploited enslaved black mothers has contributed to the negative connotation of breast-feeding within the black community. While not all black mothers are aware of the history of breastfeeding, the oppression and disdain associated with breastfeeding from years ago was passed down and still exists today.
Jennifer D. Evans, a certified lactation education counselor, told Yahoo Life that “Black women, like our counterparts, are more likely to breastfeed if our mothers breastfeed. Due to our history of not being able to feed our babies in the past, this has reached current generations and created a disconnect in our communities. Whether or not mothers have support from their partner and the immediate community is also a factor.”
Socioeconomic factors, including maintaining employment after childbirth, are also barriers to breastfeeding. Black mothers are much more likely to return to work earlier, as 55% of black women on parental leave are unpaid. Black women are also “more likely to be the main economic supporter of their families, with 70.7% of black mothers as sole providers and 14.7% as co-providers,” according to the ACLU, which increases the pressure to get back to work.
Factors that impact black mothers’ decision to breastfeed
Kathey Wanliss, a college professor and black mother of two, told Yahoo Life that before having her first child, she didn’t “have a stance” on breastfeeding or formula. “I just figured I would do both,” she says. “However, after the birth of my first child, using formula didn’t ‘feel right’, hence exclusive breastfeeding. When I had my second child, I did more intensive research and knew all the benefits of breastfeeding.”
Dr. Kersha S. Pennicott, pediatrician and lactation consultant, shared with Yahoo Life that “Breastfeeding is ideal nutrition for a baby. It is tailor-made for the baby and includes antibodies that provide some level of protection against certain types of infections.”
For Wanliss, exclusive breastfeeding was also cheaper than formula feeding. “I definitely saved a lot of money by not having to spend on formula and bottles and all the other stuff that comes with formula feeding,” she says. “Breastfeeding allowed me to focus on my own nutrition. Since I was eating well then I knew my kids would be healthy too.”
But breastfeeding is not for everyone. As Pennicott points out, “It is important to recognize that breastfeeding may not be possible for everyone. It is critical to support parents in whatever method they use to feed their baby, whether exclusive breastfeeding, mixed breast/bottle or exclusive formula. For mothers who cannot breastfeed or decide not to breastfeed, formula is a safe alternative.”
Pennicott adds that the postpartum period is “a very difficult time and many mothers feel ashamed of their infant feeding choices. As a pediatrician and lactation consultant, my goal is to have a healthy, growing baby and to support parents in raising their children.”
Dr. Shawn M. Smith, a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, agrees. “The ‘Breast is Best’ campaign, initiated by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the 1990s, was intended to highlight the benefits and promote exclusive breastfeeding, but unfortunately left out many families where breastfeeding or exclusive breastfeeding is not an option,” says Smith. Yahoo Life.
She adds that the campaign also “may not have taken into account the historical cases in which enslaved black and indigenous women were forced to nurse white babies from families who enslaved people against their will and the generational trauma that can be passed on in families.” blacks and blacks”. indigenous families [which] it can present itself as disinterest, disgust, or lack of support for new parents. The most inclusive sentiment is ‘Fed is Best’, which means a baby with milk in their belly is better than a baby without milk.”
Latasha Brooks, a black mother of three, has breastfed and used formula, but relies primarily on formula “for the sake of convenience and my career.”
“My son [Brooks’s youngest child] it was the first baby I ever breastfed of all my children,” she told Yahoo Life. “My choice to formula feed after four weeks played a big part in the positive impact on my mental health.”
In general, formula feeding tends to be more expensive than breastfeeding, says Pennicott, “but for economic reasons, black mothers often return to work earlier, making it difficult to establish a successful breastfeeding relationship.”
As Pennicott points out, “Many jobs don’t offer protected time to pump. There are often [fewer] hospital and community resources in predominantly black neighborhoods to support parents. All of these examples show the complexity of why there are decreased breastfeeding rates in the African American community.”
Implicit or unconscious biases in doctors and nurses also “inherently play a factor in our discussions of breastfeeding,” notes Smith. “We often unknowingly make assumptions about which families will choose to breastfeed and which families may choose not to breastfeed. This can influence the type of education we provide families and the engagement of our conversations and can often lead to disparities in the amount of support, guidance and interactions with babies and families.”
Helping Black Moms Make the Right Choice for Their Families
Pennicott says the most important way to empower black mothers is through education. “When they feel well informed about their choices and how they can make their breastfeeding relationship a success, they will feel empowered and encouraged,” she says. “There is a disparity in breastfeeding rates, and I think it’s important for black mothers to have even more additional support from their healthcare team, lactation consultants, family/friends and the wider community. This includes the workplace allowing adequate breaks for pumping, community spaces that protect mothers’ rights to feed with or without cover, and providing clean spaces for pumping in public places.”
For some mothers, however, formula feeding may be the preferred choice. “Doctors and nurses should consider that breastfeeding can be an unwanted choice,” says Smith. “Doctors and nurses should also honestly share that breastfeeding can sometimes be difficult for mothers or babies… and it shouldn’t be an unwanted source of stress that interferes with the bond between parents and babies.”
For black mothers who want to breastfeed, Evans recommends taking a breastfeeding course before giving birth and/or hiring a doula. “A doula can often point the way for lactation professionals in your area and ensure you’re getting lactation support while you’re in the hospital,” she says.
Finding a supportive community also helps. “We were never meant to be parents and breastfeed alone,” says Evans. “Tell any family you believe will give you a boost in your plans to feed the baby and give them ideas on how they can support you. Count on the postpartum support of those around you to take care of tasks like cooking and cleaning so you can focus on healing and feeding your new baby. Create a meal list for your baby shower so that in the first few weeks you can have one less thing to worry about.”
Evans adds, “It’s important that you’re careful so you can tune in to your baby’s needs.”
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