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OP-ED: Black moms need breastfeeding equality

Neve Spicer
Tribune News Service
Lactation activists and professionals have created Black Breastfeeding Week, an advocacy campaign spanning the final week of August.The event, which was the brainchild of Kimberly Seals Allers, focuses on five ways in which Black mothers and babies are underserved by typical breastfeeding support structures. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Breastfeeding is foundational to good health and has been scientifically proven to be the best way to nourish babies, but the opportunity to successfully and consistently breastfeed isn’t available to all mothers.

Black mothers, in particular, are disproportionately impacted by breastfeeding inequality. That’s why lactation activists and professionals have created Black Breastfeeding Week, an advocacy campaign spanning the final week of August.

The event, which was the brainchild of Kimberly Seals Allers, focuses on five ways in which Black mothers and babies are underserved by typical breastfeeding support structures.

A key issue for advocates is the tragically high infant mortality rate in the Black community. While science has long known that the infant mortality rate for Black babies is between two and three times higher than that for white babies, recent findings have also revealed that the mortality rate for Black infants climbs when they are under the care of non-Black doctors.

Access to breast milk, the ideal first food for children, may reduce Black infant mortality rates by up to 50%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition to premature births and low birth weight — two pervasive issues faced by Black moms — the African American community reports disproportionate numbers of certain diseases, such as asthma, SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Breastfeeding in infancy helps provide access to the antibodies that can reduce future risks of these illnesses.

Also, in many communities, breastfeeding professionals are overwhelmingly white. This means that a Black mom may have a harder time finding a certified lactation consultant who’s culturally sensitive to her needs and understands her experiences.

Compounding this issue is that generations of Black women have expressed hesitance to breastfeed, as the practice is often associated with ancestors who were enslaved and forced to act as wet nurses for white babies. Although this painful stigma seems to decline with each generation, a dearth of support and experience from older female relatives can make it harder to stick with breastfeeding.

Finally, not all communities are “breastfeeding friendly.” A lack of accessible community education and support for moms, along with a lack of businesses and legislation that protect and encourage nursing, has led to what infant health advocate Seals Allers describes as “first food deserts.”

All of these findings are deeply troubling. They make it clear that immediate advocacy and change are needed in order to create a prenatal, natal and postnatal experience that serves Black mothers and children appropriately.

Black mothers must be given access to more medical care, education and support, but achieving these goals requires acknowledging where major deficits currently exist.

— To learn more about Black Breastfeeding Week and the importance of breastfeeding advocacy, please visit the event’s website: blackbreastfeedingweek.org. For more details on breastfeeding inequality, and to get involved with local advocacy organizations, visit the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action.

— Neve Spicer is a mother of three, breastfeeding advocate and chief editor at the website We The Parents. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.