Black women have the lowest rate of successful breastfeeding in the United States. On average, we also breastfeed for the shortest period of time across racial and ethnic groups—just over six weeks. The complex cultural and institutional barriers that undermine our success are exactly why the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee is now commemorating the seventh annual Black Breastfeeding Week.
Given the tremendous health benefits of breastfeeding for baby and mother, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance encourages willing and able mothers exclusively nurse during the first six months of a child’s life. For far too many Black mothers, however, cultural stigma and a lack of access to quality healthcare and family-friendly workplace policies systematically prevent us from holding the power to decide for ourselves.
Breast milk is often referred to as “liquid gold” for its tremendous benefits to babies’ physical and digestive health, brain development and immune system. Breastfeeding also releases hormones that support mothers’ emotional health and physical recuperation after the stress of childbirth. These mutual benefits make it all the more important to set mothers up for success. Unfortunately, racial bias in healthcare often contributes to poor health outcomes for the mother and undermines her ability to nurse.
When I gave birth in January, the pediatric intern prescribed formula to my son and proceeded to repeatedly asked me whether I used it until I eventually relented. My experience wasn’t unique, but symptomatic of poor hospital policies that often facilitate formula use. For those mothers who succeed initially, stigma and structural inequalities make the already challenging climb to sustain their newborn babies nearly insurmountable for black mothers.
Women regularly experience shaming over breastfeeding in public, due in part to the unnecessary sexualizing of women’s breasts. Fear and discomfort over being objectified by assuming glares are further heightened by the hyper-sexualizing of women of color. Navigating respectability politics and a long history of being separated from their babies also makes breastfeeding taboo in many black households.
Beyond these cultural hurdles, the United States’ storied history of racial inequality adds structural barriers. Recent studies show black women are both more likely to work and serve as the primary source of income for their families. Continued income inequality leaves many black mothers working long hours or multiple jobs. Despite protections under the Affordable Care Act, low wage, service sector jobs often fail to provide workplace accommodations, such as adequate work breaks and privacy to pump. Many states, including Michigan, also fail to mandate paid family leave.
Ultimately, whether or not a woman chooses to breastfeed is her choice alone. Reforming our workplaces, local economies and healthcare practices, however, can help ensure every mother who chooses to breastfeed feels supported and empowered to decide on her own.
This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released their first policy statement on the impacts of racism on child health outcomes. Their report urges pediatricians to address their own internal biases and conduct quality assessments to ensure policies at hospitals and private practices provide culturally competent care.
Congress can also play a role in improving healthcare outcomes. The MOMMA’s Act, introduced in both the Senate and House, would address the nation’s abysmal infant and maternal mortality rates and extend Medicaid and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program eligibility to postpartum women.
As a mother, I know how important the first hours of a newborn’s life can be to strengthen the bond between a mother and child. Teaching yourself and your baby how to latch for the first time is stressful. The least we can do is make sure every woman enjoys equal support leading up to that critical moment and sustain it over the difficult transition that follows.