Black and Brown Moms Urge Breastfeeding Support

Another National Breastfeeding Month—and another year without the basic workplace breastfeeding protections and support everyone deserves.

Over a dozen mothers gather at Mokapu Mall in Oahu, Hawaii, during National Breastfeeding Week in August 2014. Mothers worldwide were encouraged to breastfeed in public for one minute at 10:30 a.m. in their respective time zones. (Kristen Wong)

Nobody blinked when a Republican blocked U.S. Senate passage of the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act in June. The bill would have guaranteed nursing moms working outside the home with time and private space to pump. The House passed the bill with bipartisan support, and the Senate HELP committee did so with unanimous consent. All this, in the middle of an unprecedented baby formula shortage that emptied grocery shelves and caused panic and hardship among new parents nationwide.

Breastfeeding has multiple benefits: It reduces premature infant deaths and pediatric health costs. But we’ve become so accustomed to Republican lawmakers shutting down common-sense legislation essential to women’s health and economic security, there were few headlines or protests when the PUMP Act went down—because there was no surprise. The losers this time were the 12.7 million working women of childbearing age who are either exempt from existing protections for breastfeeding on the job, or at risk for being misclassified as exempt, including many teachers and nurses. Those moms will continue pumping in bathrooms, coatrooms, cafeterias, cars and closets—or stop breastfeeding altogether.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued new breastfeeding guidelines this summer, continuing its recommendation for exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and advising continued breastfeeding, along with complementary foods, for two years or more. Two years! We might as well ask new moms to do backflips and handstands while they breastfeed. We’re presenting parents with a false choice.

Right now, four in five U.S. moms start out breastfeeding, but less than half are still doing so six months after giving birth. It’s simply too hard, and for Black and Brown moms like me, it’s often impossible.

For those of us working to improve maternal health, and Black maternal health in particular, these are the worst of times. We begin another National Breastfeeding Month without the basic workplace breastfeeding protections everyone deserves. The pandemic has made the Black women’s maternal mortality crisis worsen. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that both the rate of women dying in pregnancy and the disparities in who is affected, are growing.

And the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health has created a horrifying, almost dystopian frenzy with women in state after state being denied not just the abortion care they need, but also care for miscarriages and ectopic and other life-threatening pregnancies, as well as medications and contraception. The recent vote in Kansas offers tremendous hope but, unfortunately, does nothing for the many women being refused and denied care right now. And not long after the victory in Kansas, lawmakers in Indiana adopted a cruel, punitive abortion ban. As always, low-income women and women of color are suffering the most.

Improving women’s health in today’s America seems like a herculean task. I know. I wear several “hats.”

I’m a Black mom who managed to breastfeed all four of my children, despite having to travel between offices—and despite my twins spending the first six weeks of their lives in the NICU. I’ve seen breastfeeding become more difficult, not easier, since I last gave birth.

I’m a doula who for more than 10 years has supported birthing people. For too many of the women I care for these days, the excitement about becoming a mom is dampened by fear and resignation. Giving birth and raising kids is incredibly hard in our country today.

And I’ve been a women’s health advocate for many years, building support and fighting for the policies and programs we all know women need. It’s clear what those policies are. Moms need quality, culturally appropriate maternal healthcare and health insurance that covers it; breastfeeding support; affordable childcare; paid family and medical leave; and access to the full range of reproductive healthcare, including abortion. 

There is strong public support for all those measures. In a functioning democracy, that should set us up for success. But it hasn’t. Sadly, many of our elected leaders in D.C. seem unwilling to adopt most of the programs and policies women and families need, and the country wants.

Unless or until we change that, we’ll continue to fail America’s women and families in excruciatingly painful, costly, fundamental ways.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Tina Sherman is national director for maternal justice at MomsRising. She is from North Carolina.