This week marks the tenth annual anniversary of Black Breastfeeding Week, an event that seeks to bring awareness to the wide racial disparities in breastfeeding rates. Black Breastfeeding Week was founded in 2012 by Kimberly Seals Allers, author of The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding, Kiddada Green, founding executive director of Black Mothers' Breastfeeding Association, and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, a nurse-midwife and co-editor of Free to Breastfeed: Voices from Black Mothers. Black Breastfeeding Week focuses on addressing the challenges of breastfeeding while fostering a culture of support and reclamation.
Breastfeeding disparities persist for Black parents
Black parents have been disproportionately pushed away from breastfeeding, facing barriers including a lack of education and knowledge, lack of peer and family support, and concerns about navigating breastfeeding upon returning to work. The racialized gaps in breastfeeding have serious consequences—breastfeeding provides an abundance of benefits for both birthing parent and child, including decreased infant mortality rate, protection against short- and long-term disease, and reduction in risk for cancers for breastfeeding people.
To celebrate Black Breastfeeding Week, we talked to L.C. De Shay, IBCLC, and Maven Lactation Consultant to discuss what breastfeeding means for the Black community, the obstacles to breastfeeding that still exist, and the work being done to improve Black breastfeeding rates.
Q: How did Black Breastfeeding Week begin—and why is it important today?
“Black Breastfeeding Week grew out of a need to confront the reality that all of the systemic disparities that exist in the U.S. are not an accident. As a society, there are lots of things that we collectively participate in—even subconsciously—that perpetuate inequities among other human beings: limiting access to things like an equitable level of medical care, or the capacity to live wherever you desire, or the ability to be adequately compensated at the same level as someone else. On every single one of those levels, we find the same disparities as we do within breastfeeding. And so we're looking at breastfeeding as this symptom of a greater issue within our collective society.”
Q: According to the CDC, 59% of Black mothers breastfed their babies at birth compared with 75% of white mothers. Can you share a little bit about why these disparities exist?
“When it comes to Black women and breastfeeding, it's not that there’s a lack of interest or a lack of willingness, it’s that there’s a lack of healing on a communal level. Because there is no support or acknowledgment of the trauma that is being carried—trauma that comes from turning something that was supposed to be natural and bonding into a war wound, more or less, during one of the darkest parts of American history.
These disparities are coming from the same place redlining comes from, they’re coming from the same place that the disparities in education among public schools come from. All of these things, they exist for the same reasons, they have the same history, and they're being perpetuated by the same principles. I like to keep everything intersectional and collective, because we're never going to adequately solve problems if we pretend like none of them are related to each other. It's just not working.”
Q: Care matching (matching patients with a provider of the same race, ethnicity, or sexual identity) is a core part of Maven’s care model. Can you talk about the concept of care matching and why it's so valuable when it comes to breastfeeding?
“There are certain types of empathy that are experiential. It's not because other people can't care and can't help, but I think you have to leave space for complexity in this conversation, because something is always better than nothing. I believe that everybody from every background who needs care deserves to get compassion and at least the bare minimum adequate service, and I believe that every healthcare provider is not only capable of doing that but has a responsibility to do that. In other words, if you’re a white midwife, you need to do all of the work to educate yourself on the backgrounds of anyone you could be interacting with so that you can adequately serve them.
But there's a difference between adequately serving someone and giving them what they need, in a respectful manner, and coming from a place where you can facilitate healing because you understand why the person is struggling. Being educated on what societal issues led to the current dynamics is not the same as having survived those dynamics and therefore being able to stand with someone, with their pain, and tell them, ‘You’re seen, you’re heard, and you’re felt because I am also here—let’s both work toward healing in this.’”
Q: How can allies support Black breastfeeding this week and the rest of the year?
“The most successful Black breastfeeding programs are what I call ‘Black-led and ally-fed.’ This means that rather than allies maintaining a hierarchical order and dictating how things are supposed to be implemented, they transfer their power, their voices, and their resources to the people who have the plans and the connection to the community but have not been afforded the power or the ability or the money to do that. These organizations have the trust of the community and they have the social experience, which is not necessarily something you can teach. Everyone can be educated, but everyone cannot be socially experienced. And that’s okay! This is something to honor—all of us have a native community that we have our own connections to, and that we will know more about than other people will know about. So with allies, lifting up those organizations to a place where they can be accessed more and serve more people than they’ve had the capacity to serve in the past—that is the best thing that you can do.”
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