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A Black Woman’s Guide To Breastfeeding

Pass The Milk

Summer is in full swing as heatwaves, forest fires, and family barbecues enter the forefront of American existence. Juneteenth and the federal holiday established almost 89 years prior (Independence Day: July 4th, 1776) have both come and gone. And yet, 158 years after the solidification of Black freedom across the United States (December 6th, 1865); African Americans still strive to realize the promise of life, liberty, and happiness. In 1993, the Clinton Administration announced the ‘Healthcare Reform Initiative’ identifying healthcare as a human right. While representing only a minority of the population, Black mothers and their babies lead U.S. infant and maternal mortality rates. It is safe to say that healthcare as a right has successfully eluded the American negro. Here is some advice for Black women learning how to breastfeed.

Breastfeeding initiation rates among Black babies in the U.S. are the lowest among all other racial and ethnic groups. But what does life, liberty, and happiness have to do with milk? Health status across the lifespan has a direct impact on an individual’s quality of life and financial stability. For babies, failure to breastfeed increases the risk for impaired brain development, SIDS, childhood cancer, childhood obesity, diabetes (type 1 and 2), necrotizing enterocolitis, and more. For mothers, failure to breastfeed among mothers increases the risk for complications including but not limited to cancer (premenopausal and ovarian), heart attack, diabetes (type 2), obesity, and osteoporosis. When it comes to U.S. infant mortality breastfeeding is a great opportunity to address the reality that Black babies are 3 times more likely to die than their White counterparts. 

How Did We Get Here?

Wetnurse3-300×200.jpegBrace yourself… Racism. The ever-malleable and pervasive thread that is racism finds itself at the core of medical disparity once again. Historically speaking, White women viewed breastfeeding as a task that was beneath them. Thus, U.S. slave owners forced enslaved Black women to act as wet nurses to their wives and children. During this time and well afterwards Black mothers were prohibited from breastfeeding their own children. Black women operated as wet nurses to White families well into the 1940s. It was at this time that formula companies employed marketing campaigns that specifically targeted low-income mothers. Even after the 1970s when evidence-based research had proven that ‘breast is best’ Black women were still being encouraged to give their babies formula.

Black women in the U.S. have spent hundreds of years being indoctrinated into the notion that their bodies are not their own. That the most maternal aspects of their femininity should be reserved for their white counterparts at the exclusion of their very own children. To the extent that social taboos are often perpetuated within our own communities. Black mothers are often shamed for breastfeeding in public, told to hide in bathrooms, or sexualized in a way that makes breastfeeding feel inappropriate altogether. Motherhood is a communal process and we must shift our communal mindset in order to provide Black mothers with the support that they both need and deserve.


3 Tips For Reclaiming Bodies, Breasts, & Blackness:


 #1: Listen To Your Body

  • The postpartum period is a very sensitive time. Your body is expending an exorbitant amount of energy in an effort to recover from the birthing process, provide nourishment to you and your baby, and adjust to the hormonal changes that it is experiencing. Be kind to yourself. Sleep when you need to, cry when you want to, and know that this part of motherhood is both temporary and fleeting.
  • Breastfeeding can be painful for various reasons. For the first 2-5 days your body will produce a small, thick amount of colostrum. This is extremely healthy for your baby. So do your best to start breastfeeding right away. After that your milk will come in causing your breasts to fill (engorge) potentially causing pain and or tenderness. Pain can be indicative of improper latching, blocked mammary glands, or mastitis. Be sure to share any questions or concerns with your healthcare provider. Utilize resources like the Breast Care Instructions  provided via Penn Medicine

#2: Get Educated!

  • Youtube University is real, it is here, and it is filled with a ton of information to support your breastfeeding journey. Check out Global Health Media’s comprehensive breast feeding series! It is available in multiple languages including English and Spanish. This playlist covers a range of topics including but not limited to proper latching, positioning, milk expression, and milk storage. Another great resource that can be found at Youtube University is a Breastfeeding lecture lead by Lactation Specialist Sam Foster. This lecture was produced by the Pregnancy Babies & Children’s Expo, one of the world’s longest running early parenting event. Check out their website for more information! 

#3: Don’t Give up!

  • Let’s be clear, you are strong, you are powerful, and you are capable! Women everywhere experience difficulty breastfeeding. There is no issue that cannot be overcome should you decide that breastfeeding is best for your family. Ultimately, breastfeeding is a choice and your decision to opt in or out does not dictate your value as a mother. It is imperative that you make the best decision for yourself. If you find yourself in need of assistance at any point in your breastfeeding journey seek help. Local Support Groups are a great way to meet other moms and create community. The Chocolate Milk Cafe located in Brooklyn, NY is a peer to peer support group that provides lactation support to families of the African Diaspora. Lactation consultant Aqueelah Russel is one of the only Black International Board Certified Lactation Consultants serving the greater San Gabrielle Valley area in California. Services include virtual and in-person racially concordant care. Lastly, explore the Black Mothers Breastfeeding website to stay up to date on evidence-based research pertinent to your breastfeeding journey. You got this Black mamma; remember you are magic!

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