Nursing Tales: Black Moms Need Breastfeeding Support

Despite evidence that says "breast is best," too many black women don't breastfeed their babies

BHM Edit Staff | 8/1/2013, 6 a.m.
Black moms need breastfeeding support. Thinkstock

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women exclusively nurse their babies for at least a full six months. Ideally, all women would breastfeed for the first year of their babies’ lives. Why? Research indicates that nursing an infant may lead to a stronger immune system, less diarrhea, less constipation, fewer colds and ear infections, and lower rates of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). “Breast milk is best for babies,” explains Atlanta pediatrician Joyce Lovett, M.D., “because it contains nutritional components that are natural tranquilizers for babies and is always clean and at the right temperature.”

For the nursing mother, Dr. Lovett says, breastfeeding promotes faster loss of pregnancy weight, stimulates the uterus to contract to pre-pregnancy size, produces naturally soothing hormones and may lower the risk of developing some types of cancer and osteoporosis in later life.

Despite all this evidence to support breastfeeding, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that only about 32 percent of American children born in 2005 were exclusively breastfed for three months and only 12 percent of American children born that same year were nursed without formula supplementation for the recommended first six months of the infant’s life. Among specific groups of women, particularly African Americans, Latinas, low-income women and women younger than 20, the numbers are even lower.

Black Health Matters talked to Kimberly Seals Allers, creator of MochaManual.com and parenting and breastfeeding advocate, about why we’re so reluctant to breastfeed and what can be done to reverse this phenomenon.

BHM: Is it that we don’t breastfeed at all or that we don’t breastfeed long enough?

Kimberly Seals Allers: It’s a little bit of both. There have been some recent increases in duration, but when it gets to six months, we’re about 20 percent. Our white counterparts are at about 50 percent.

BHM: What are some of the reasons black women don’t breastfeed?

KSA: There’s not one answer for this. It’s really complicated. There are the leftover nuances of our role as wet nurses during slavery. And then we had a huge disconnect in the 1940s, where the infant formula market was really aggressive. The thinking was if you have money, you buy formula. There’s nothing like African Americans wanting to show that we have arrived, that we have money. White women were really leading the way away from breastfeeding. And we followed them. [In my work as a breastfeeding advocate] I hear a lot of “breastfeeding is for poor people.”

Then white women came back [to breastfeeding]—and have done so in large numbers, with lots of celebrity role models. We have not followed suit.

There are also lifestyle stereotypes surrounding breastfeeding. There’s a perception within our own community is that it’s the girls with head wraps and naturals and eating granola. I blame this on the National Geographic effect. The only time we used to see black women breastfeeding was in that magazine—half naked, with elongated noses and earrings. And we said, “That’s not us.”

Lack of community support is another reason. A lot of times we don’t have the support. Our men are a huge issue. And if they’re not into it….