It’s National Breastfeeding Month, which means the all-too-familiar phrase “breast is best” is being talked about a lot. But when we say “breast is best” what are we really saying and how are we supporting all people who nurse? Are we setting them up for success and preparing them for the challenges often associated with nursing? Are new parents being educated and informed about how their medical history can impact their ability to nurse exclusively? Are we helping breastfeeding folks who are returning to work so that they can pump? Are providers informed and aware of the social and economic challenges that people of color and black women, in particular, face when it comes to nursing?
Why Black Breastfeeding Week?
Without a doubt, the culture has shifted from the messaging campaigns for formula feeding in the 1950s and ‘60s to an understanding of the psychological and health benefits of nursing. In many ways that’s a good thing. But huge disparities still exist between white folks who nurse and black folks who nurse.
According to the latest data by the CDC, the infant mortality rate for black babies is double, and in some places triple that of white babies. Despite the strides we’re making as a society to make nursing more acceptable and accessible, there is still work to be done. There is a misconception that black people do not nurse their babies, (psst, we do). Messages like “breast is best,” formula marketing campaigns targeted at black and brown folks and inadequate training of staff in some WIC offices, are still disservices to black and brown people who lactate.
In 2013 three black women came together to address the disparities in breastfeeding between black women and white women and in the process created Black Breastfeeding Week. Nearly seven years later, Black Breastfeeding Week activities have spread across the country, with communities participating in events such as “Baby Lift Up”, “Big Latch On”, documentary screenings and more. The Instagram hashtag #blackbreastfeedingweek features over 12,000 photos, and these images of melanated folks nursing their babies and toddlers gives me hope.
I spoke with three black birth professionals about their experiences of nursing in the black community in Seattle and asked for their take on the importance of Black Breastfeeding Week.
Sabia Wade is not from the Puget Sound but she recently hosted a workshop in Seattle about racism and privilege in birth work. According to Wade, “There’s such a big focus and increase in lactation awareness but we’re still missing the mark on approaching each lactating parent as an individual. For black lactating parents, there’s a history of wet nursing and other ways of losing our bodily autonomy, that needs to be recognized on our path to reclaiming our bodies and increasing our accessibility and desire to lactate.”
The complexities of why black folks who lactate struggle is often rooted in our history of oppression, systematic and institutional racism, and a lack of access to education and providers of color.
Rue Khosa is the owner and founder of The Perfect Push, a Redmond-based nonprofit organization that focuses on “empowering the underserved and at-risk to address maternal and fetal mortality in their communities here in the United States and around the world”.
“We’ve never been on an equal playing field to begin with, says” Khosa. “We need to uplift each other. That’s why I love the BBW ‘Lift Every Baby’ event. We matter, every baby matters -- we need to matter to each other, so [that] we can get rid of some of the stigmas related to breastfeeding that are passed on from generation to generation. Even for people with access to the best medical care, access and education around breastfeeding is lacking and isn’t nearly as comprehensive as it should be.”
Seattle doula and lactation educator, Davinah Simmons agrees. “PTSD and trauma that is unprocessed lives in our body and can hinder the desire to nurse. Nursing is 10 percent supply and 90 percent confidence and support.” This support is where we will begin to see the margins between white and black people who nurse diminish.
Everyone I spoke to seemed to agree that the need for more education around lactation as well as having more providers of color were key factors to creating higher breastfeeding rates among black people.
Providers like Khosa and Simmons (and a host of other black lactation consultants and educators in the area) are working to create better solutions.
“Continued exposure and normalizing of nursing in our family environments along with better educational resources will help put us in the right direction,” says Simmons.
As a doula, I find it frustrating to hear about the bleak maternal health outcomes for black women and it’s always at the front of my mind, especially when I am working with black families.
Hearing from Rue, Kosa, Wade and Simmons gave me a lot of hope. I was thrilled to learn that Khosa’s foundation is awarding domestic and international grants and scholarships aimed at training and educating more people. It takes individuals who care and community effort to get us there. The theme for BBW 2019 is “The World Is Yours”. And it is when we’re working together.