Today begins Black Breastfeeding Week, an awareness event created to address the breastfeeding gap and share the distinct challenges and obstacles experienced within the African-American community. This year's theme is #BetOnBlack because, as the website describes, that's "how our families and those that love and support them keep showing up and shining." Since Lamaze serves as a resource for all families, it's important to inform our readers and fans about the specific issues at hand, whether you are someone who may experience them first-hand or are in a position to help and encourage others.
Breastfeeding Challenges Unique to Black Families
Before we talk about the specific challenges, let's take a look at the statistics. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 64.3% of black infants began breastfeeding during 2010-2013 compared to 81.5% of white infants. The rate for black infants to be exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months of age and breastfeeding for 12 months duration was also significantly lower than for white infants. Why is this a big deal? Apart from the fact that breast milk is the best, most ideal first food for better health in infants and children, breast milk also improves or helps avoid specific conditions and diseases that affect African-American babies at higher rates, like type II diabetes, asthma, obesity, SIDS, and infant mortality. Now that you understand why breastfeeding is important for black infants, learn more about the unique obstacles.
A complex breastfeeding history and negative cultural perception - It is believed that lower black breastfeeding rates and negative cultural stereotyping within the black community stem in large part from historically traumatic experiences of slaves used as wet nurses to breastfeed white children. Negative perceptions of breastfeeding have been passed down for generations and are still widely expressed by black family members to mothers today.
Lack of professional breastfeeding support and breastfeeding education from providers - This is caused by several reasons, including the lack of African-American lactation consultants to serve their communities (which means a lack of role models and culturally sensitive professionals to work appropriately with black families); the cost associated with receiving professional breastfeeding help; and lack of information given to parents from providers who may assume that a black parent is not likely to breastfeed.
Lack of at-home support and encouragement - Because many black women who start breastfeeding do not have a circle of women surrounding them who also have breastfed, they will lack role models and support from those "in the know."
Higher rates of returning earlier to work/shorter maternity leave - Black families are disproportionately affected by poverty and lower incomes, which means that black women who have babies are returning to work earlier with very little or no maternity leave. This presents a significant challenge to continuing breastfeeding.
Reasons to Celebrate
In the last 10 years, there has been about a 10% increase in the rates of black breastfeeding initiation and duration. Additionally, because of the widespread knowledge of the gap in breastfeeding rates an the specific challenges experienced, more and more grassroots organizations have organized and worked to do the work that's needed directly in communities that need it the most. Of course, there still is work to be done.
For more information about the issues at hand, for resources needed to improve your chances of breastfeeding success, and to help others in your community and surrounding areas, take a look at the following resources and share this information widely!