Mamas on Bedrest: Yes, Black Mamas do Breastfeed!

November 11th, 2013

I am an African American Mama who breastfed both her babies. Yet according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African American Women lag far behind women of other ethnicities in breastfeeding. Why?

When I made the decision to breastfeed, both my mother and mother-in-law looked at me, noses squinched up, as if they had smelled something repugnant. Neither of them had breastfed their babies (3 a piece), and they could not fathom why I would want to do such a “primitive” thing. My mother-in-law even went so far as to say, “You’re gonna have saggy boobs”. That fell on deaf ears because I had my kids so much later in life my breasts had already begun to head south! I explained to them both the benefits of breastfeeding; fewer occurences of ear infections, reduction in the incidences of asthma and the mother baby bond. Both became supportive of my breastfeeding and I was able to breastfeed each of my children for just under a year.

The Nation’s Health recently looked at the disparities in breastfeeding and has been asking, “Why is it that African American Women breastfeed at much lower rates than other women and what can be done to improve their breastfeeding rates and success.” 

The biggest factor is support. While nationally many hospitals have increased their support and are advocating for exclusive breastfeeding (motivated in large part to earn the designation “Baby Friendly”), and are making lactation consultants widely available and ceasing to distribute formula care packages provided by formula companies, public health experts note that the support of a woman’s intimate family and friends plays a far more significant role in whether or not a woman decides to breastfeed and whether or not she succeeds. A woman is highly influenced by those around her.The responses of my mother and mother-in-law could have completely sabotaged my breastfeeding efforts. Strong, influential women like a mother or mother-in-law can make or break breastfeeding efforts. A supportive partner is also crucial to breastfeeding success. Women who have the support of their partners are also more likely to breastfeed and to have breastfeeding success. In communities in which breastfeeding is the norm, women are more likely to initiate breastfeeding and to be more successful at breastfeeding. Community groups and organization where mamas can gather and gain support also have an important role in breastfeeding success.

Education is extremely important. Many people are unaware of the significant health and emotional benefits of breastfeeding to both mother and baby. When I explained these important benefits (i.e. fewer ear infections, reduction in allergies and asthma, reduction in the incidence of reflux, bonding between mother and baby, and the financial savings) to my mother and mother-in-law, both quickly became supporters. Among teens, breasts are seen only as objects of sexual pleasure (as depicted in music videos and other media) and many young women report never having seen a woman breastfeed a baby and are unaware that the God given intentional use for breasts is to feed the young. We have to return to such basics.

We also have to consider the financial benefits and convenience of breastfeeding. Formula is not cheap and if a baby has any sort of allergy, specialty formulas are even more expensive than standard formulations. Additionally, with breastfeeding, there is no need to bring additional supplies in the diaper bag, no need to worry about temperature or if the formula is mixed in the right proportions to water. Breastmilk is always the proper temperature, the proper composition of water to nutrients and ready for immediate consumption! This is a huge consideration as we enter into Health Care Reform and the initiation of the Affordable Care Act. If we need to consider cost containment, Breastfeeding versus formula feeding must be targeted.

Finally, African American Women need to see other African American Women breastfeeding. While the CDC and other advocacy agencies have begun to show images of African American mothers nursing their infants, most informational material still shows white mamas and babies. Subconsciously, the message is “black mamas don’t breastfeed”. It may seem trivial, but we are visual creatures. When African American mamas are aware that other African American mamas breastfeed and can actually see other African American mamas breastfeed, they are more likely to breastfeed themselves.

While overall rates of breastfeeding among African American women has increased, these rates still lag far behind women of other races and ethnicities. With the known health advantages of breastfeeding for both mamas and babies, including the potential to lower infant illness and death in African American babies (who have the highest rates amongst infants of all ethnicities) Breastfeeding support and education must be made a priority for all mamas, but for African American mamas in particular.


My son and I circa 2006. Note the chubby breastfed cheeks!



My daughter in 2002 at approximately 4 months. Though born at 5 lbs 3oz, note the chubby breastfed cheeks!

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