The numbers around breastfeeding in the black community reveal a troubling racial disparity that hasn’t changed in more than 40 years: only 58.9 percent of black women breastfeed compared to 75 percent of white women, according to the latest data from the CDC. And much like many gaps, the lower numbers of black moms breastfeeding can be linked to even larger socioeconomic and health issues, including, most disturbingly, the high black infant mortality rate. (Increasing the number of black women who breastfeed could halve the infant mortality rate.)
That’s why Kimberly Seals Allers, Kidadda Green, and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka launched Black Breastfeeding Week (BBW) in 2012—to raise awareness and visibility of issues around black women and breastfeeding. This year’s theme ”Lift Every Baby” encourages participants to celebrate the beauty and importance of breastmilk, also known as the best first food for baby. The event starts August 25 and ends August 31 with a breastfeeding walk in Brooklyn, New York. (There are a number of events happening across the nation, you can see a breakdown on My Brown Baby and the official Black Breastfeeding Week website. You can also join us for a #LiftEveryBaby Twitter chat about family development and childrearing on August 27 at 9 p.m. EST.)
Author, midwife, maternal health expert, and Black Breastfeeding Week co-founder Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka spoke to us about the week’s importance and the biggest myths around black women and breastfeeding.
What inspired you to start Black Breastfeeding Week?
Black Breastfeeding Week was sparked by a statement co-founder and journalist Kimberly Seals-Allers made in an op-ed she wrote in 2013. In the spirit of self-determination, Kimberly stated that there would be a BBW to close out the month of August, which is National Breastfeeding Month, in response to the documented inequities black families face in achieving lactation support. When [BBW co-founder] Kiddada Green and I ran into Kimberly at a conference that week, we began brainstorming how to actually make it happen.
Why does this week need to exist?
There has been a great shift in the tide of public opinion and healthcare training as it relates to breastfeeding. We now see breastfeeding accepted as the optimal source of nutrition for newborns, especially with the Surgeon General’s Call to Action regarding breastfeeding and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life and at least until 12 months of age with solids.
“Lift Every Baby” captures the hope and power behind breastfeeding as a way to nurture our future.
Along with this, there is a corresponding emphasis on increasing awareness and training of healthcare providers to support new parents in breastfeeding infants. With all of this, we still find a great disparity in the prevalence of breastfeeding in black families and in support provided by healthcare providers. All of this exists within the greater social and political matrix that affects how much time new parents can afford to spend integrating a new baby into the family and historical and familial legacies of trauma that impact our caregiving rituals. When there is a known racialized wealth gap, lack of intergenerational wealth, lack of paid family leave, scarce community-based support for lactation, and a nascent culture of affirmation, we create a steep mountain for families to climb.
For black people in particular, breastfeeding offers important benefits for ailments that overwhelming diminish our health or cut short our lives. For example, exclusive breastfeeding is one of the only proven actions a mother can take to protect herself against the most aggressive forms of breast cancer, which affect black women at disproportionately high rates. So while popular media likes to focus on celebrities and lifestyle questions related to breastfeeding, we began BBW as way to celebrate and promote what is a crucial life-saving, life-affirming, and loving practice that is part of our human legacy.
What does this year’s theme “Lift Every Baby” mean in the context of black women and breastfeeding?
This year’s theme is a symbolic nod to the Black National Anthem. Our aim is always to position breastfeeding as a normal infant feeding choice and tradition of love within our community. To that end, breastfeeding is one of the many ways that pour our love into our children and help them develop. We feel that “Lift Every Baby” captures the hope and power behind breastfeeding as a way to nurture our future, but also to flex our own strength as the nurturers of those children and as a community that supports breastfeeding and parenting.
For women who aren’t mothers yet, what should we know about breastfeeding?
My personal advice to would-be mothers about breastfeeding is to give it a try, set a goal—six months of exclusive breast milk, etc.—and use that time as a unique opportunity to bond with the baby. Know that there are online and in-person resources available for possible bumps in the road, but try not to be anxious or expect it not to work even if your closest relatives and friends found it too difficult.
A big part of breastfeeding ease is being present in the moment, staying hydrated, and dialing down the stress. Seek out breastfeeding support in your community while pregnant; having a tribe can make a great difference in the quality of your experiences. The support may come from breastfeeding clubs, “baby cafes,” the WIC office breastfeeding peer counselors or independent lactation counselors/educators.
What are the five biggest myths around black women and breastfeeding?
Black women don’t breastfeed.
Black women who don’t breastfeed don’t do so because they’re too focused on being “independent” and feminist.
When black women don’t breastfeed, they’re being bad mothers and depriving their children of love.
Breastfeeding is natural, so it should be easy.
Black women don’t breastfeed in public.
What are the barriers to breastfeeding that black women are especially vulnerable to? How can we overcome those barriers?
This is a particularly timely question as the Center for Social Inclusion just released their report “Removing Barriers to Breastfeeding: A Structural Race Analysis of First Food.” The report uses a racial justice lens to both uncover and make recommendations for remedying the structural barriers to breastfeeding that generate racial inequity in such things as access to lactation services and workplace support. It’s a fascinating and clear read that shows the direct connections between such issues as income inequality and racialized disparities in the healthcare professions lead impact—or don’t—breastfeeding. It also touches on how low breastfeeding rates can reduce the visibility of the act and local transmission of knowledge, which creates a culture that views breastfeeding as abnormal and not in need of supporting.