Breastfeeding may be a bond between a mother and a child—but low rates of breastfeeding are a challenge for the entire community.
That's the perspective I gained from covering Rush University Medical Center’s breastfeeding conference last week, where I was able to pull aside a speaker at the event who combats low rates of breastfeeding in the black community.
Kiddada Ramey is president and founder of the Black Mother’s Breastfeeding Association, a Detroit-based group providing breastfeeding support services through “community breastfeeding.”
“The key is to build capacity in the community,” Ramey says.
She says that the guiding principle behind community breastfeeding is that everyone in a given community should be “taking an active role in the health of children”—through aiding education initiatives and giving social support to mothers.
Statistics show black Chicago neighborhoods such as Englewood, Roseland, Riverdale, West Pullman and Washington Park have some of the lowest rates of breastfed infants.
“Some of the health disparities that we have can be eliminated if people were to breastfeed their children,” says Ramey.
The African American Breastfeeding Alliance, a non-profit group, says government initiatives like WIC have illustrated breastfeeding disparities and set goals to shorten them but “have not created effective interventions to reach these goals.”
Black mothers “are overloaded with coupons, samples, and booklets from infant formula companies,” that help influence them not to breastfeed, according to An Easy Guide to Breastfeeding for African American Women and Their Families—a collaboration between the African American Breastfeeding Alliance and the U.S. Office on Women’s Health.
In addition, “few booklets, posters, and other materials” depict black mothers breastfeeding their babies and “This lack of culturally sensitive images has helped support a belief that breastfeeding is no longer a part of [black] culture.”
Ramey says historical factors stemming from slavery have influenced breastfeeding rates, though these influences are not the only reasons for low rates of breastfeeding by black women. Ramey touched on these factors at Rush’s conference but I called her the next day seeking even more elaboration.
“Because of the duties that we were given in regards to taking care of the land, it didn’t allow for a lifestyle of breastfeeding. Mothers returned to work the day after they had their babies,” Ramey says. “Sometimes they were allowed to bring the babies into the field with them and sometimes they weren’t, but they were still limited in their ability to nurse.”
Other mothers were forced to breastfeed the slave master’s children, so many black mothers lacked time and energy to breastfeed their own infants.
Slavery in the U.S. is dead and gone, but the demands of work in today's world still pose daunting obstacles.
Black mothers are often primary breadwinners for their families, and job demands can deter them from breastfeeding.
Delving into the socioeconomic and historical causes for this trend would take another blog post, or several, or several books—but I will say that black men must play an integral role in breastfeeding if the black community is to reduce disparities.
An Easy Guide to Breastfeeding for African American Women and Their Families cites black mothers’ lack of access to breastfeeding information but apparently more needs to be done to inform help black men, too—especially since “Black women are more likely to breastfeed if their husband,” or boyfriend, supports it.