Each week, the pregnant women sit in a conference room at a health clinic in Southeast Washington. With their hands protectively resting on their protruding stomachs, the women enrolled in the four-week class soak up information on the health benefits of breast-feeding.

This gathering at the East of the River Lactation Center on Good Hope Road is aimed at increasing breast-feeding among African American mothers living in Northeast and Southeast Washington and across the Anacostia River. Officials say those women have the lowest breast-feeding rates in the District.

According to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black mothers nationwide lag behind other racial and ethnic groups when it comes to breast-feeding. In a recent study, 54 percent of black mothers breast-fed their infants from birth, compared with 74 percent of white mothers and 80 percent of Hispanic mothers. Breast-feeding rates for all groups, including Asian and Native American mothers, drop after six months. But just 27 percent of African American mothers continued to breast-feed, compared with 43 percent of white mothers and 45 percent of Hispanic mothers.

Center director Sahira Long, a certified lactation consultant who is also president of the D.C. Breastfeeding Coalition, said the barriers that any mother would face in breast-feeding, such as lack of knowledge, are magnified among blacks in the high-poverty neighborhoods.

“There are myths that are passed on — that it is painful, or that it will be difficult to get the baby to go to anyone else than the mother,” Long said. “If that mother is the first to breast-feed in their family, then they won’t get the family or community support.”

Promotional efforts

Long, who is also a pediatrician, has been treating patients at the Good Hope Road clinic run by Children’s Health Center since 2004. It was her interaction with families that helped her see the need for breast-feeding awareness classes. She helped land a one- year, $163,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get a full-time breast-feeding peer counselor, a part-time lactation consultant, part-time nutritionist, supplies and two other positions. District mothers receiving food and nutrition services from the USDA’s Women, Infants and Children program are the target group.

Nationally, WIC serves nearly half of the infants born in the United States each year, said Kevin Concannon, the USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. Mothers enrolled in the WIC program receive checks to purchase vitamin- and protein-packed foods and work with a nutritionist during their pregnancy and after the baby is born.

In recent years, Concannon said, WIC has increased its efforts to promote breast-feeding by offering an enhanced food package for women who exclusively nurse their children until the first birthday. The hope is that the incentive will help mothers choose breast-feeding rather than have WIC pay for food and formula, Concannon said. The WIC program also makes breast pumps available.

As a result of the effort, breast-feeding among mothers in the WIC program jumped from 41 percent participation in 1998 to 63 percent in 2010, Concannon said.

“We have been adding elements to support this breast-feeding strategy and I think we can get up to 85 percent participation if we stay the course,” he said.

At the D.C. lactation center, officials set out to increase the number of mothers who try breast-feeding — and stay with it — by 10 percent over the current level of 44 percent. The center tracks participation monthly, and in the first six months of operation, it met that goal, Long said.

An informed decision

Jamilah Muhayman, the center’s breast-feeding peer counselor who started in August, has breast-fed all three of her children. She approaches clients more like a cousin or sister promoting a good cause than an authority figure. “My goal is to help moms make an informed decision,” she said.

On a recent day, Kathryn Dowling, the part-time nutritionist, called Muhayman to ask her to talk with a mother who breast-fed her daughter at home but gave the child formula when she was in public. The mother might be a good candidate for a breast pump.

The mother, Veronica Lee, 22, said she loved breastfeeding her 3-month-old daughter, Kennedi. She enjoyed the special bond that they had and she knew that breast milk was best for her baby. But she just didn’t feel comfortable doing it in public.

Muhayman suggested that Lee try a breast pump because it would allow her to express the milk into a bottle and then give the bottle to her daughter. “I’ll let you think about it,” Muhayman said, pausing for about a minute as Lee considered the option.

“Yes, I’m interested,” Lee said.

Muhayman left the room and returned with the pump. She carefully displayed each part and described its use to Lee, who paid close attention. Muhayman played a short video explaining how to use the pump, then gave Lee a card with her phone number and told her to call if she had questions.

With the baby snuggled inside a carrier strapped to her chest, Lee tucked her WIC checks into her baby bag and slung the new breast pump onto her shoulder. She said it would come in handy as she starts a job training program this month and has to leave her daughter with a sitter.

“I’ll definitely use it,” she said.