By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO
When compared to White women, Black women don’t breastfeed as much or as often, and some of the reasons why go all the way back to slavery when Black women did not have autonomy over their own bodies.
August marks National Breastfeeding Month and the final week of the month marks Black Breastfeeding Week- a time for organizers to raise awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding and advocate for policies that make breastfeeding easier across the board.
“When we talk about some of the struggles that Black women face, we cannot allow the foundations in this country that have led to the stigma and the challenges — the health disparities — we can’t ignore the institutional racism,” said Tina Sherman, campaign director of MomsRising, a grassroots nonprofit of more than one million members advocating for issues that support mothers, women and families. “We see it as not an individual failure, it’s a systemic failure that needs to be addressed,” Sherman continued.
Black Breastfeeding Week, which runs through Aug. 31, offers a time of awareness building with more than 160 events commencing all over the country.
Its signature event is the baby lift up, where people gather in public spaces and invite families to lift their babies. This serves as a “public demonstration for Black families to reaffirm their commitment to their children,” said Kimberly Seals Allars, co-founder of Black Breastfeeding Week, now in its seventh year.
The lack of awareness and disparities among Black women and breastfeeding for around 40 years — when the U.S. started documenting the breastfeeding rate — prompted Allars to launch a week devoted to them.
“Anything that has persisted that long deserved focused attention to reverse that narrative,” Allars told the AFRO.
The gold standard for breastfeeding — which is beneficial to the mother and the baby — is 12 months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Black women are less likely to breastfeed than White women — the disparities begin at initiation and widen out over time, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Moreover, four out of five moms start breastfeeding their children but less than half of them are still doing it six months later, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“When it comes to Black women, there’s some historical reasons as to why breastfeeding is failing, going back to slavery and family separation,” Sherman says.
Enslaved Black mothers often breastfed their master’s children, depleting the supply for their own children, who were typically sold to other masters. After slavery, some Black mothers became wet nurses for White babies. Both instances disrupted the bond between Black mothers and their children.
Starting around the 1970s, infant formula companies stigmatized breastfeeding by marketing to Black women with the message that formula was a product for sophisticates, while breastfeeding was seen as low class. This message resonated with Black women and in the United States they still consistently use formula at disproportionately higher rates, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
“We bought in and so you see that historically over time, particularly in the early 70s, there really wasn’t a lot of breastfeeding in the Black community,” Allars said.
Meanwhile, mothers of all races face barriers in meeting those goals due to a lack of workplace accommodation, a lack educational support about breastfeeding policies and a larger population that thinks it’s illegal to breastfeed in public.
On Monday for example, DCist reported that a female staffer at Nats Park told a woman breastfeeding in her seat during a game to do it in a nursing lounge — after a fan complained. The mom refused to move and the staffer backed down. The mom and her husband left the game early, soured by the experience. She sent an email to the Nats, demanding that they train or retrain its staff not to approach a breastfeeding mother, affirm a woman’s right to breastfeed in public. She also asserted they issue her tickets to another game to make up for the one she and her husband left early.s not illegal to breastfeed in public,” Sherman told the AFRO, adding that she frequently hears from families who have been asked not to breastfeed somewhere. “When someone has said something to a mom, it is usually out of ignorance.”