Black women have the lowest breastfeeding initiation rates (about 64 percent) and the shortest breastfeeding duration (roughly 6.5 weeks) of all ethnic groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women struggle to breastfeed successfully because they return earlier to work, receive less information about breastfeeding from their health-care providers and have less access to professional support.
So in addition to the usual dirty looks and exhaustion that many breastfeeding moms face, I had to deal with the lack of understanding and the stigma that surrounded breastfeeding in the black community, much of it related to the painful legacy of neglecting our own children to nurse white babies both during and immediately after slavery. Many lactation consultants do not account for this, or the economic struggles that leave black women without the information or opportunities they need to breastfeed successfully. And there are few black lactation consultants to assist these women. I felt like an outsider, and the data backed that up.
The numbers are improving, though, with the launch of campaigns such as Black Women Do Breastfeed. These kinds of targeted efforts are reaching black women in a way that accounts for the challenges they face, such as limited maternal leave, wage disparities and few lactation consultants who understand black culture and the negative historical legacy of breastfeeding.
The best way to improve breastfeeding success rates in the black community is to provide support and adequate resources to those interested. August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and Aug. 25-31 is Black Breastfeeding Week. I recently asked four black women to talk about their breastfeeding journeys. Here are edited excerpts of their stories.
Sierra Bowman, mom of two
My first experience with breastfeeding was pretty bad. I was young, and even though the hospital gave me a lactation consultant, she wasn’t much help. She didn’t give me any real guidance on proper latching. Hospital staff noticed Alex was small and said I needed to supplement and gave me a bottle. To top it off, I was on many medications after pregnancy because I had eclampsia, so by the time I could even breastfeed, my daughter was already adjusted to the bottle. I tried pumping while supplementing, but it was so painful and she hardly took it, so I finally gave in a few months later.
This time around, breastfeeding is a freaking breeze. My lactation consultant gave multiple classes and took the time to teach latching techniques. I also have a friend who is my breastfeeding cheerleader, who kept me strong when I was anxious about feeding. My son, even with a tongue tie (a condition where a short band of tissue under the tongue restricts range of motion) latches great, and it’s a nice bonding time. I think the difference between this time and the first is my support team.
Jamara Wakefield, mom of one
I heard horror stories about babies who wouldn’t latch. I wasn’t nervous for myself, but those unnecessary voices were in the back of my mind. My mother breastfed and was very supportive. I participated in several community-based support programs. I live in New York City and had a visiting nurse who came for prenatal check-ins and postpartum care. She happened to be lactation-certified, so that was amazing. My doula was also a great support.
I did have to educate people in my life, though. People don’t realize that breastfeeding, while beautiful, is exhausting and time-consuming — especially if you’re doing it on demand. People expected me to be up, cleaning and doing normal activities far too quickly. But breastfeeding taxes my whole body and consumes a lot of my daily energy.
Now that the baby is 5 months old, we use formula and breast milk. I pump just enough to keep my supply going, and some days instead of waking up early to pump . . . I don’t. There are always trade-offs. As long as my baby is growing, I try to let myself off the hook for setbacks. I’m doing the best I can, considering I had no paid time off and maternity leave was a financial disaster.
Breastfeeding twins was challenging in a few different ways. The first task was mastering the double latch, a.k.a. tandem breastfeeding. Positioning two babies with or without a nursing pillow, then latching each baby, correcting head positions, supporting bodies . . . just imagine juggling watermelons that wiggle. They didn’t want to nurse together, one would wake up early and empty both breasts. The other wouldn’t nurse longer than 5 to 10 minutes. My production was not consistent, and it felt as though it was impossible to increase it, even with nursing, post-pumping and bingeing on lactation foods and tea. After four and a half to five months, I decided to stop because seeing my babies adapt to formula faster than my milk was disheartening, hyper-pumping was exhausting and painful, and my desire to get back in the gym did more for my self-esteem than failing to breastfeed adequately for two babies.
Sa’iyda Shabazz, mom of one
I always knew that breastfeeding was going to happen unless I physically couldn’t. My son latched soon after birth and didn’t stop until I weaned him, about two months shy of his fourth birthday. I never planned to breastfeed that long, but it was what worked best for us. I got comments from friends and family about how long I was going to nurse him, but I felt like, “my body, my kid, my choice.”
I joined a few Facebook groups for breastfeeding, and I discovered Black Women Do Breastfeed. I luckily didn’t need support, but I loved supporting other black women. I know our numbers are low, and if I could offer anyone support, I was all about it.
I enjoyed breastfeeding tremendously until the last few months, which is how I knew it was time to wean. Our only issue was that my son only nursed from one side, but he’s a big, strong, healthy kid, so I don’t think it really was a hindrance. We nursed on demand until the end. Sometimes I miss it. He has told me about his positive memory of it, so I feel validated in my choices.
Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist whose work can be seen in The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, the Root and other places. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.