Why aren’t black mothers breastfeeding?

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Tiffany Pridgen

Coming from a very conservative small town, breastfeeding was a topic that was never discussed outside the home and certainly not practiced in public. For context, in the same small town if you were to take your birth control prescription to the pharmacy to be refilled, the clerk would never refer to the pills by name: she’d say, in a whisper, “Your b.c. is ready to be picked up.”

You could go through life there forgetting that breasts are for baby food until you actually had a baby yourself and had to deal with the consequences of delivering it (namely engorgement). I have to admit that until about a year ago I myself found the concept of breastfeeding to be a bit backwards…and I mean “barefoot hippie” backwards. It seemed like an activity only women on the fringes of society engaged in, and I had certainly never seen any black women doing it.

It wasn’t until my pregnancy last year that I began to evaluate why I was so uptight about breastfeeding, and much to my chagrin figured out that I feared that I’d lose my “homegirl membership” if I did. I had already received one strike against me when caught listening to Johnny Cash at work one day. Seriously, though, I think a little part of me was afraid that black women would tell me I was selling out. Frankly, up until that point I didn’t give a damn about how people judged me, but when you add a multi-racial child into the mix you can’t help but to feel like you’re being called out for turning your back on “your people.” Why add insult to injury?

After a lot of third trimester deliberation and having a labor & delivery nurse basically make the decision for me (it was a “give me your breast so I can attach your kid to it” situation), I breastfeed. Exclusively. I’m not a “lactivist” and I’m not going to try to convert anyone to my way of life. I don’t argue with people about formula being just as good because, frankly, I don’t care what other people do…but maybe I should?

Research shows that black women are far off the mark in terms of how many attempt to nurse, and that those who do typically don’t do it very long. Dr. Suzette Oyeku comments on this trend in the July-August 2003 issue of Public Health Reports. In her article “A Closer Look at Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Breastfeeding” she details the following statistics:

“In 2001, 69.5% of women in the U.S. breastfed and 46.3% of women exclusively breastfed their infants in the early postpartum period. In the same year, only 32% of mothers were still breastfeeding and 17.2% were exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months postpartum. In 2001, only 52.9% African American women breastfed their infants in the early postpartum period, compared with 73% of Hispanic mothers and 72% of white mothers. The proportion of African American mothers continuing to nurse 6 months after birth was only 22%, compared with 33% of Hispanic mothers and 34% of white mothers. These rates underscore a significant racial/ethnic disparity in breastfeeding rates.”

Oyeku discusses that of all the factors influencing a woman’s decision to breastfeed, the two most critical sources of information are from healthcare providers and social supports (friends and family). Black women signing up for WIC during the time preceding her study were more likely to be advised to bottle-feed than their white counterparts because they were more likely to return to work sooner than non-black women and wouldn’t be working in situations suitable for pumping.

You know, I did a lot of bitching and moaning to my mom’s group when I was pregnant about how I wouldn’t be able to nurse if I returned to work and was told that my logic was full of holes: one mom in the group had been a full-time employee of a huge home improvement store and went out to pump on the loading dock (shielded by a plastic curtain) during breaks. She was fully committed to following through on the choice she made for her child and found a way to do it. It’s not impossible. Breastfeeding isn’t just for stay-at-home moms and the educated upper classes who work desk jobs. I feel like many black women dismiss it entirely just as I did.

Additionally, I’m sure some Southern black women who are healthy and able to nurse find it difficult to forget what breastfeeding meant for them in the past. Breastfeeding later became equated with something that poor women who couldn’t afford formula did, and now the tables are turning once more. It is now the women who can least afford to purchase formula who most often do because our society has conditioned us into believing that breastfeeding is passé, and at best an alternative to formula.

I can’t recall a single advertisement or illustration representing a black mother and child nursing when I was pregnant, but then again I suppose the magazines and websites I read aren’t trying particularly hard to be culturally inclusive. Whenever the media covers some breastfeeding-in-public scandal, the woman in question is usually white and possibly more than a little sensationalist (read: activist). I suppose that for some young black women seeing this sort of coverage would further convince them that it, like feminism, is a white woman’s battle.

Whose responsibility is it to normalize breastfeeding for black Americans? Healthcare providers? Those public assistance caseworkers who approve WIC applicants? People like me (middle-class, college-educated, and fairly liberal)? I think that part of my job as an anti-racist parent is to occasionally stick my neck out and set an example, but would the people who need an example take me (coming from a situation of privilege) seriously?

What do you think?

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