“Black women don’t breastfeed.”
I’ve seen this phrase float around the internet over the years and it always pisses me off. My first feeling is one of great offense, because it’s usually couched in a negative and condescending tone…as if we aren’t smart enough to grasp the value and benefits of breastfeeding. “Of course we breastfeed,” I would often snap back, while rolling my eyes. Because I breastfed, all three of my children to be exact. In fact, most of my black mom friends did too. If they didn’t, they either gave it a true shot or heavily considered it, which should always be applauded because Lord knows it ain’t easy!
But it wasn’t until a white mom friend asked me why black women don’t breastfeed that I realized it was time to take a deeper look into whether this stigma is true, and if so, why? Because although I know there are many of us that do breastfeed, I also know it’s a complicated and a sensitive subject in the black community. So in an attempt to answer the question, I found myself stuttering and struggling through explanations that kind of made sense, but not really. I, myself, was left with more questions than answers. As an avid breastfeeding advocate, I felt compelled to personally address the debacle and join the campaign to change the narrative. I’ll start by posting this blog.
So where does this idea that black women don’t breastfeed even come from? Black moms carry the stereotype that we either don’t breastfeed at all, don’t know how, or don’t like it. Obviously it’s not completely true because I know plenty of breastfeeding Sistas. But I do believe the first step in changing the narrative and normalization is being honest about the barriers that impact our rates and success.
I remember learning in Sociology 101, that many stereotypes have a hint of truth. And this is no different. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that black women breastfeed at a rate of 54%, compared to the rate of white women at 74%. The national average across all races being 73%. Basically, we are 20% less likely to breastfeed than our white counterparts. But why are our rates so much lower, and how do we improve them? We can’t help normalize what we don’t understand. So we have to start somewhere. Let’s go back to the roots.
Many people believe black women are less likely to breastfeed because of our painful history in slavery. Many slave women were forced to stop nursing their own babies to serve as “wet nurses” for the master’s babies. “Mammy” is what they called her. As a result, some of their own babies died from malnutrition as their milk was given away to flourishing white babies. Perhaps the reality that breastfeeding was “forced” or that their milk was essentially “stolen” put a really bad taste in their mouth for the act. Imagine having the beautiful ability to breastfeed your newborn, only for your precious “liquid gold” to be given to another baby deemed better and more worthy. The thought that slave moms were forced to act as feeding machines is incredibly hurtful and can do a number on one’s psyche.
This new meaning of breastfeeding was ingrained in the minds of so many black slaves, who perpetuated the resentment through subsequent generations. In fact, these awful memories were not too distant with our grandmothers, and great grandmothers. I recently asked my grandmother, who had her babies in the Mississippi Delta, if she breastfed. She replied “no” with narrowed eyes and disdain, but didn’t elaborate on her decision. I just got the feeling it was not a preferred option by any stretch of the imagination and it wasn’t something commonly discussed. And if you know my grandmother, you understand why I didn’t ask anymore questions! This is the exact feeling and tone that was commonly passed down through the generations. Collective disdain and acceptance.
“the white ideal of breastfeeding evokes nostalgia, especially when it concerns black nursemaids—so much so that a “mammy” figure is used to sell syrup bottles in the twenty-first century. For the black woman, being subjected to the cruel, inhumane job of being a nursemaid still causes post-traumatic stress disorder so much so that it affects their quality of life.”-Marissa Johnson
It’s not surprising that this underlying resentment for breastfeeding made its way through the post-slavery era. By the time it reached my generation, the clear backstory was no longer attached. We just know that there are some mixed feelings involved and many black people frown upon it. I’m blessed that I had supportive family and friends that respected my decision to breastfeed, as it certainly took a village. However, I can also recall telling others I planned to breastfeed and being met with contorted faces and words like “gross.” I remember repeatedly defending my decision, reminding people of the benefits and value. But I still often felt like a pariah for being proud of my “gross” decision. It’s a shame that this negative connotation festered and embedded itself into our collective psyche. But we’re going to change that.
There are other, more relevant reasons that today’s black women are less likely to breastfeed:
- Lack of general knowledge. For some its not talked about, discussed or ever mentioned in families or friendship circles. So fewer women are exposed or know it is a viable option.
- Few hospital resources. One study shows that some hospitals in urban areas where black women give birth are less likely to promote breastfeeding. If women don’t leave the hospital with proper knowledge and confidence to breastfeed, they are probably less likely to try or sustain it.
- Limited peer support. I imagine women are less likely to breastfeed if their peers and friends don’t do it, or frown upon it.
- Lack of family/spousal support. Breastfeeding can be a community effort, as it is a complete lifestyle change (especially for new moms). If family members or a spouse/SO disapprove, it can be a challenging venture to conquer alone.
- Insufficient maternity leave. With limited time off and so many women having to quickly return to work, breastfeeding is often severely reduced or discontinued without proper workplace accommodations.
It’s time to “Normalize.”
I embrace the past because it’s part of who I am. But I can also do my part to reconstruct the beauty that breastfeeding represents. Luckily, studies also show that breastfeeding is on the rise for black women, which means now is the perfect time to hop on board and increase this momentum.
Here are some things we can do collectively:
- Do it! If you are an expectant mother wondering if breastfeeding is right for you, ask around. Learn about it. Commit to giving it a shot.
- Keep talking about it. We have to keep spreading the word to expose more moms to the benefits and resources. When breastfeeding becomes embedded in our every day language, it will begin to feel more normal. I share my breastfeeding success stories with every expectant mom I know and encourage them to give it a shot.
- Know your rights. Breastfeeding is a right and our jobs need to make accommodations. DON’T BACK DOWN FROM MAKING YOUR JOB STEP UP! Breastfeeding shouldn’t end just because we have to return to work. Employers should offer private nursing rooms so moms can pump milk for their babies throughout the day. After all, it’s a medical necessity.
- Don’t be afraid to nurse in public. You shouldn’t have to hide in a bathroom or breastfeed in a car (I’ve done both out of insecurity). Your baby has the right to eat when it is hungry, in a safe and clean environment. Who cares what others say. Ask them, “do you eat your lunch in the bathroom?”
- Promote group support. My breastfeeding confidence drastically increased when I joined mom groups full of other nursing women. They answered my questions and made me feel normal. I know for fact their support and encouragement added to my success.
It’s time to change the conversation and normalize what is natural.
Do you support breastfeeding and are you ready to normalize? If so, let’s do it together. Please proudly share this blog in support!
Breastfeeding: Some Slavery Crap?
Distant Echoes of Slavery Affect Breastfeeding Attitudes of Black Women
CDC Racial and Ethnic Differences in Breastfeeding Initiation and Duration, by State — National Immunization Survey, United States, 2004–2008
Black Women Do Breastfeed, Despite Intense Systemic Barriers in the US
This article was originally published on Sassy Plum