Updated: Aug 22
Black Breastfeeding Week is a time of celebration, reflection, affirmation, and empowerment. During this annual gathering, (the revolution is not a one time event) we take it as an opportunity to show the world that we are reclaiming the tradition of breastfeeding from our ancestors.
But when I Google Black Breastfeeding Week this happens…
It’s disheartening that we have to justify the reasoning behind eliminating racial health disparities. Many people think this week is only essential to the short-term and long-term health of Black families, that’s simply not true this crisis impacts us all. The U.S. would save $3 billion in medical costs alone if we focused on improving support for Black breastfeeding mothers.
I trust in the words of the great Angela Davis… “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” Let’s change the narrative and reframe the focus by asking the question of “how”.
The mission of Black Breastfeeding Week is to work on addressing the inequities faced by the Black community in maternal, child, and family health. Increasing Black breastfeeding rates would have a positive impact on maternal and infant health mortality and morbidity rates.
This week was birthed by three courageous and passionate Black women, Kimberley Seals-Allers, Kiddada Green, and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, advocates and activists. Thanks to these admirable pioneers, we celebrate this week in a collective focus to encourage, promote & uplift Black breastfeeding culture.
August 25th - 31st, this year, 2022, is the 10th year of celebration and more events are happening now more than ever with the addition of online gatherings. Even our UK sisters and brothers have joined the party. Last year the theme was “The Big Pause–Collective Rest for Collective Power”. A time to honor the power of rest in social justice, lactation and Black maternal and infant health. Us advocates, community members and organizations, took our rest, but now we are recharged and this thing is just getting started!
I’m going to take a plunge at “the how” by providing ways of celebrating & showing support. Let’s jump right in!
How to: Support & Celebrate Black Breastfeeding Week
7 Ways To Support
“Black women have unique cultural barriers and a complex history connected to breastfeeding.”
—Kimberly Seals Allers
The complex history in which Seals Allers speaks of has to do with colonization, slavery and white supremacy. A history that continues to control the reproductive capacities of Black and Indigenous women is the foundation on which this country is built. You could see why some Black families choose not to breastfeed as a form of rebellion against white patriarchy. But I say, let’s change that negative to a positive and if this is the route we are taking, instead let’s make the choice to breastfeed be a tool of liberation against white privilege and supremacy.
“Within the realm of influences that contribute to the comparative low numbers for breastfeeding amongst Black Women are, slavery, racism, implicit bias, and discrimination from care/treatment providers.” —Mekha McGuire
Historical trauma has far reaching effects in the Black community. Black people have endured a century of violent oppression, and another century filled with hostile legal discrimination and prejudice that continues to hurt generations. Racism is still the most prevalent and preventable factor in the health statistics of Black mothers and babies in the U.S.
1. Love & Listen
Spread Love, light and positive messages about Black breastfeeding, like this one.
Listen, Hear and Trust Black Women. Hear Her CDC campaign
Remove your bias and practice active listening (non judgmentally).
And read this story about Serena Williams traumatic birth experience, almost losing her life due to medical racism when no one listened to her and countless other Black mothers who did lose their lives due to this crisis, like Kira Johnson and Dr. Shalon Irving
The history of wet nursing during slavery is unnerving to say the least. “A lot of slave babies died during slavery because they weren’t breast-fed. They were fed concoctions of dirty water and cows milk” Forced to feed the oppressors' baby over their own.
“Being oppressed means the absence of choices”
― bell hooks
But what scares me more is how formula companies continue aggressive marketing campaigns targeting Black families--Black babies are 9x more likely to be offered artificial milk in hospital settings as opposed to white babies. This ideology has been persistent since the 1940’s by the introduction of formula through the company ‘Pet’s Milk’, who indecently used four beautiful Black babies, known as the Fultz Quads, to promote their product. Since then, Formula companies often prey on Black families by making Black women the target audience by over emphasizing the use of Black families in their advertising.
These predatory actions often go with lack of repercussion or oversight. The international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes, a resolution by the World Health Organization since 1981, is a set of recommendations for member states of the World Health Organization (WHO) designed to regulate the marketing of breast milk substitutes, feeding bottles and teats. It is referred to as the ' WHO Code'.
So let’s consider the optics when we discuss infant feeding. Before the mass oppression of Black people in the US began, breastfeeding was the optimal infant feeding choice for our babies and by continuing this tradition we honor our ancestors. By spreading these types of positive messages we reignite the love for Black breastfeeding, we change the lens and context of Black mothers in media exposure. This is not meant to erase history or diminish the lived experiences of others and carried generational traumas that Black families hold, and we must listen and validate when someone divulges their trauma. Passing down images and stories of Black breastfeeding is one way to show we reclaim our bodily autonomy as a people.
2. Acknowledge The Disparities
Stats & Facts
The commercial and medical pressures to use artificial milks have kept Black breastfeeding rates at the lowest. In the US, Black mothers were nine times more likely to be given formula in the hospital than white mothers (McKinney et al, 2016).
Black women have suffered more coercion into sterilization or the use of riskier forms of contraception.
US black women are three times more likely to die than white women from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and this disparity has widened in the 21st century.
Black mothers weaned their infants 10.3 weeks earlier than did white mothers. (McKinney et al 2016).
Black infants in the US are twice as likely to die during their first year of life compared to white infants. (NCHS)
Institutional barriers are what keep Black women from breastfeeding for the first six months or longer. According to UNICEF, out of all possible solutions for preventing infant and young child death, increasing breastfeeding rates overall could prevent 800,000 child deaths per year—which is more than any other single strategy, even more than such key benefits as the provision of safe water, sanitation, immunization and medical care.
Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is the most common, serious gastrointestinal disease affecting newborn infants. Healthcare providers consider this disease as a medical and surgical emergency. Racism-related stress may help explain why Black women in the United States are over 50% more likely to deliver a premature baby than white women. NEC disproportionately affects Black infants and the best way to help prevent NEC is with human milk.
“One of the most highly effective preventive measures a mother can take to protect her child and her own health, is to breastfeed.”
3. Encourage and facilitate structural & systems change
Fight against racial inequality & medical racism
Eliminate racial & gender based wage disparities
Support paid family leave
“It’s definitely harder to keep breastfeeding while at work. Even tho laws support this, the environment can be hostile.”
Black families are often overlooked by hospital lactation consultants and Black lactation consultants, like myself, are severely underrepresented in this area of health care. The low pay and lack of entry for non nurse-IBCLCs restrict job opportunities in this profession for women who do not have additional sources of income.
Race-based discrimination in employment is still looming, causing job insecurity and barriers to economic security and advancement for Black and Brown people.
Black women suffer the most from the intersectionality of these disparities. Black women are also more likely to have jobs that aren’t flexible about pumping at work. Policies that allow for at least 12 weeks' maternity leave would help improve breastfeeding duration for employed Black women, a challenge I help the majority of my Black clients navigate. However, it will take deeper interdisciplinary research to address health and economic issues of maternity leave to eliminate racial disparities.
Lack of access to economic support makes it more difficult for Black families to absorb the financial shock of a serious family or medical need. Due to discriminatory policies that persist and prevent or exclude families of color from accessing public programs that helped build the middle class, such as financial aid for higher education and affordable mortgages to build home equity for generational wealth. For example, the FHA (Federal Housing Administration) refused to insure mortgages in and near Black communities until 1968. Black people are still more likely to be denied conventional mortgage loans than white people with similar qualifications. So much for the American dream and liberty and justice for all.
Overall lack of resources and support for Black women contributes to significantly lower economic well-being for them and their families.
Black women are more likely to be the sole breadwinners and primary caregivers for their family, so opting out of the labor force is not an option for most Black women.
81% of Black mothers, 67% of Native mothers and 52% of Latina mothers are the sole breadwinners for their families, compared to 50% of white mothers.
Black women are typically paid just 63 cents, Native women just 57 cents and Latinas just 54 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.
Systems Change Efforts:
Job Protection: Paid leave programs should include job protection so that Black and brown workers can take paid leave without fear of losing their jobs.
Anti-Discrimination Protections: Black and Brown workers continue to experience disproportionately high rates of discrimination and retaliation over race, color and national origin despite federal law prohibition.
Progressive Wage Replacement: To make paid leave accessible to Black employees, the wage replacement rate should be as close to 100% as possible and made progressive by providing greater wage replacement to people with lower incomes. No different than the state paid short term disability or unemployment insurance.
Portability and Coverage Across Multiple Jobs: Paid leave should be attached to the employee not the employer, it should be transferable from job to job and eligibility should be based on work and earnings history, not employer size.