It's the 4th Annual Black Breastfeeding Week, but why is that important?
This is my oldest breastfed baby. When he was born, I was a young single mother trying to navigate the world, while simultaneously trying to give my baby the best start to life that I could give him. I witnessed my mother breastfeeding my youngest sister and breastfeeding seemed like a normal thing to do. I remember the lactation consultant coming to my room in the hospital the next day after he was born, and she told me that my breasts were too big to nurse him in the positions that most do. I remember a feeling of awkwardness (from her end), and then she demonstrated how I should roll up a rag and put it under my breast. She was the “expert”, I thought, so she must be right! Although it took me years to realize it, she was wrong. When I returned home from the hospital, I thought I knew what I was doing, but when my milk came in I became very engorged and could not get my son to latch on properly. I began to cry, wondering what was wrong with me…I was trying the “rolled up rag technique” that the lactation consultant showed me at the hospital but it was not working for me. THANKFULLY, I was able to reach out to my midwife (Debbie Healy) whom had worked with me throughout my prenatal care at The Madison Birth Center, and she was willing to came over to my house right away to assist me. She did not degrade my body or tell me that my breasts were “too big” to feed my baby. She showed me, with compassion, the different ways I could feed my baby, and how to get him to latch on appropriately. After that, I was able to latch my baby and it gave me a sense of confidence and empowerment to move forward in my parenting journey. Additionally, I heard about the African American Breastfeeding Alliance of Dane County (AABA) in Madison, and how they provide support groups for breastfeeding mothers of color. When I arrived at my first AABA support group in 2005, I felt a sense of relief, knowing that there were other women like me breastfeeding their babies, and that I was not alone in my journey.
The reason I share this experience is because I want to bring attention to the lack of community support for breastfeeding mothers of color, and to raise awareness about our racial health disparities right here in Wisconsin. Where is a mother, especially a mother of color, to go when she needs breastfeeding help or support in the community? How are we to combat the racial disparities that we see in breastfeeding rates across the nation, and locally, if we do not have a community based support system for women of color who are breastfeeding? My experience was over 10 years ago, but my lactation colleagues and I still hear and witness a lot of the same unsuccessful breastfeeding stories from women of color in our community. We want to change this! We want to empower the mothers in our community to feel confident and supported in their breastfeeding journeys.
How Can We Do This?
In my work as a full spectrum Doula, my work as a Certified Lactation Counselor, and my volunteer work through the African American Breastfeeding Alliance of Dane County, I advocate for access to affordable, culturally competent lactation care for ALL women. During my prenatal visits with families, I educate on the risks of NOT breastfeeding, in an attempt to NORMALIZE the lost art of breastfeeding. In my practice, I am working towards a health care system where informed consent and empowered choice, as well as breastfeeding, are considered the norm. Here are some ways in which you can support Exclusive Breastfeeding in your community.
We need to advocate for:
Skilled assessment and culturally sensitive comprehensive intervention when breastfeeding is not working for a mother
Available, affordable, culturally competent lactation care services for all women
Community ownership of the need for support throughout the breastfeeding experience
Ongoing support in the community to increase breastfeeding duration and exclusivity through prenatal education and support.
Inclusive pathways to become professional Lactation Consultants, and Professional Certified Lactation Counselors. There are racial disparities among professional lactation providers across the nation, and this needs to be addressed! Check out the website for the National Association for Professional and Peer Lactation Supporters of Color, to learn more. Or read this article here about the call to recognize structural racism and its effect on low breastfeeding rates among communities of color.
Here are some strategies that have been shown to promote, protect, and support breastfeeding:
Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding- UNICEF/WHO recommendations for every facility providing maternity services and care for newborn infants.
Create breastfeeding friendly environments within early childcare and education facilities. Here is a good example in Arizona.
Educate local health care providers on the American Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine's Protocol #15. The benefit of having a Doula, in respect to breastfeeding, is mentioned in here!
Promote and support community based Doula work in your community. The use of a Doula, has been shown to have positive impacts on breastfeeding for both mother and baby. Contact me at Birth Wise Doula Services or Harambee Village: Pregnancy, Childbirth, & Breastfeeding Support, if you would like to know more about Doula programs and Doulas in our area.
Educate prenatally on the benefits of Skin to Skin contact immediately after birth. Skin to skin contact after birth, is one of the most powerful steps in influencing breastfeeding outcomes. Skin to skin promotes correct suckling, less crying, temperature regulation for baby, less separation between mother and baby, and promotes Breastfeeding! Find out more information here:
Promote the understanding of the behavior of term infants, and the 9 states that babies transition through immediately after birth. Babies use their sense to reach the breast, and they can self-latch to the breast, unassisted, within an hour or two after birth. You may have heard of this called the “Magical Hour’, or the “Breast Crawl”. Here is more information:
Share your breastfeeding experiences and knowledge with other women and parents in your community. Post “brelfies” (selfies of you or someone else breastfeeding) on social media and support women when you see them breastfeeding in public. Whenever I see a woman in public breastfeeding, I always praise them for their willingness to normalize the act of breastfeeding in public! We need to normalize breastfeeding, which means we need to SEE it in our daily lives, and in the media. Research tells us that the decision to breastfeed is influenced by embodied knowledge (from seeing breastfeeding) rather than theoretical knowledge (learning about the benefits).
Why is this important, especially here in Wisconsin (which is one of the worst states to live in for Black and African American babies, children and families)?
One very unacceptable health disparity that we see in Wisconsin, is the persistently high infant mortality rates among African American babies. Black and Brown babies die at 3 times the rate of their white counterparts, right here in Wisconsin. There are local, alarming, racial and ethnic disparities not only in infant mortality but also in maternal mortality as well as breastfeeding rates. Why is this the case when we KNOW what promotes successful breastfeeding and when we KNOW strategies that can decrease infant and maternal mortality??
Edmond et. al. found that 16% of neonatal deaths could be prevented if all infants breastfed from day 1, 22% of neonatal deaths could be averted if breastfeeding were started within the first hour. Breastfeeding also has significant short and long term benefits for mothers and babies.
So why do we still see the same disparities among our African American communities right here at home? Until we address the institutional and structural racism, the lack of support for women of color prenatally and during their breastfeeding journeys, the lack of culturally sensitive health care in our conventional health care system, the lack of support for Doulas and the lack of recognition of the benefits of doula assisted birth and its effect on positive breastfeeding outcomes, especially among women of color, ……we will continue to witness low breastfeeding rates and high rates of infant and maternal death among our black and brown communities. Is this OK with you? It is NOT OK with me!! WE ALL NEED TO SPEAK UP AND SPEAK OUT! In my practice, I will continue working towards a health care system where informed consent and empowered choice, as well as breastfeeding, are considered the norm. In an attempt to honor #BlackBreastfeedingWeek, I ask that my community join me in recognizing and combating these alarming racial health disparities!
This is us know, what a healthy breastfed kid he is today! Thanks to the culturally sensitive, community support that we received from our midwife, my family, and the African American Breastfeeding Alliance of Dane County!