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Improving Racial Equity in breastfeeding 2022

Updated: Jan 19, 2023

Shining a light on the racial disparities of black breastfeeding moms, and our role as lactation specialist to help keep them moving forward.

Black Breastfeeding week is from August 25th-31st, and is now 10 years old! Even though there have been many advances in the lactation community, there is still more work to be done. The creators of this movement are Kimberly Seales Allers, Kiddada Green, and Anaya Sangodele-Ayoka. These 3 black women with a common goal of helping families of color gain access to education, provide resources through awareness of the importance of breastfeeding in underserved communities. This fairly new foundation of lactation support is built on racial equity, cultural empowerment, and community engagement, and is powered by our collective resilience as black lactation specialists. .

The Benefits of Breastfeeding

Breast Milk is the most important first food and is considered to be babies first immunization. The high infant mortality rate among black infants is mostly due to their being disproportionately born too small, too sick or too soon. These babies need the immunities and nutritional benefits of breast milk the most. Colostrum has tons of nutrients and while it is rich in macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals, its claimed health benefits are mostly linked to specific protein compounds, which include Lactoferrin. Lactoferrin is a protein involved in your body’s immune response to infections, including those caused by bacteria and viruses. A recent study, published in the Obstetrics & Gynecology journal, found that breastfeeding babies can receive COVID-19 antibodies from their vaccinated mothers, giving the babies passive immunity against the virus.

According to the CDC, increased breastfeeding among black women could decrease infant mortality rates by as much as 50%. From upper respiratory infections, Type II diabetes to asthma, and childhood obesity—these issues are rampant in our communities, and breast milk is the best preventative medicine nature provides. Black women, who have the lowest breastfeeding initiation rate of all racial groups at 69.4 percent, compared with 85.9 percent of white women, and 83.2 percent of women overall. They also have the shortest breastfeeding duration, with 44.7 percent of black women breastfeeding at 6 months compared with 62 percent of white women and 57.6 percent of women overall.

Lack of Diversity in the Lactation Workforce

As a mother of 4 breastfed daughters, there was certainly a lack of representation in this field for me. As I reflect on giving birth to my girls who are now 15, 11, 7 and 5. After having my second daughter I started to do some research on how to have a less painful experience when starting to latch her. In my search I did not see representations or demonstrations of skin that looked like mine. All of the information I saw came from women who did not look like me, the education was definitely not geared or inclusive to women of color. When women have access not only to a passionate breastfeeding specialist, that is dedicated to helping them through their breastfeeding journey, but also a specialist who is a mom and has experienced some of the same struggles that she may be going through, It makes the journey less lonesome. Representation in this field gives black women motivation to initiate breastfeeding and stay on their journey’s longer, knowing that they have backup and support. We can also talk about the lack of support from our peers. Most of the time black women don't breastfeed because they are told by their peers, family, and friends who also look just like them that “breastfeeding is for white women”, and it is “nasty, especially when in public.” These women have low support from their spouses or partners. A staggering amount of black mothers have to give up breastfeeding before 6 months, because they need to return to work. When these breastfeeding mom's return to work and want to continue to pump their milk, there is no adequate space, or proper storage areas to store their pumped milk. They are not often allotted the time needed throughout the day to pump their milk.

The Impact of the work force and breastfeeding moms

With an increasing number of facilities that accommodate mothers who need to pump their milk, it is evident that we are making small steps forward, but there’s still more to do. With the rise of formula in the late 1800s, mothers found convenience in supplementing with cow's milk formula and not being tied down to their babies. With the rise of women going into the workforce during the 1930s and the number of women workers continuing to be on the rise, breastfeeding was seen as inconvenient, and taboo, there was a decline in the initiation of breastfeeding for generations. By the early 1990s we started to see an increase in the initiation of breastfeeding amongst women overall, but black women continued to fall behind in initiation and longevity in breastfeeding.

My Goal

WIC is a great resource for mothers who are seeking to gain the overall knowledge of breastfeeding and its benefits, not only for babies, but to mom as well. I believe WIC is awesome because I was a recipient at some point throughout the first years of the lives of each one of my children, but I believe they are limited in the outreach they are willing and able to do. Some black mothers are the first to break generational cycles with implementing a healthier lifestyle and offering their children breastmilk since the creation of formula. With continuous support to these mothers, I believe we will see a greater increase in breastfeeding amongst black women. To improve worldwide breastfeeding initiation and duration rates, the WHO and UNICEF launched the Baby-Friendly Initiative (BFI) in 1991. The goal was to protect, promote and support breastfeeding by adherence to the WHO's “Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding”. Before mothers give birth, they should be educated on the importance of choosing a breastfeeding friendly facility, and coming up with a care plan/policy to be given to everyone that will come into contact with mom and her newborn, before, during and afterbirth. This care plan or policy will decrease confusion amongst the care team, making them aware that these mothers do not wish to be offered formula or given gift bags containing formula samples or coupons to entice them from their breastfeeding goals.

With the rise in black breastfeeding specialists such as myself, my goal is to give mothers the extra push, compassion. relatable education, and encouragement that is needed in order to have a successful breastfeeding experience for both mom and baby. Since 2021 I have worked as a Lactation Counselor providing support to families needing help with their breastfeeding concerns. Support can be provided via in-home visits, meetings in familiar places that are comfortable and convenient for the client, phone calls, and group settings that are less clinical in nature, which in turn gives the client a more personal experience.

How can you help?

Compassion, support, encouragement, and advocacy instead of dismissiveness. These collective steps forward will help to erase the generational stigmas behind black women and breastfeeding. You don't have to be a lactation specialist to promote the need for better access to quality lactation support, and to promote the need for breastfeeding to be at the forefront as baby's first immunization, Remember Mothers, that you have support, Use your resources! With Love always

-Sophia Taylor LPN, CLC


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