Why We Need Black Breastfeeding Week

Kerry Pieri
·11 mins read
Photo credit: Nicki Sebastian
Photo credit: Nicki Sebastian

From Harper's BAZAAR

Black Breastfeeding Week, ending today, was founded in 2013 to help address the racial disparity in breastfeeding rates. Both mother and baby reap innumerable benefits from nursing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists "reduced risk for ear, respiratory, and gastrointestinal infections," among them, as well as "a lower risk for developing type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and breast and ovarian cancers," for mothers. For myriad complex reasons, including systemic racism and generational trauma, the rates of breastfeeding are lower among Black infants and mothers compared to other ethnic groups in the US.

Kimberly Seals Allers cofounded Black Breastfeeding Week, writing in 2014 that she wanted to address the high Black infant mortality rate, high rates of diet-related disease, the lack of diversity in the lactation field, unique cultural barriers among Black women, and the desertlike food conditions in Black communities. This week doula and maternal health advocate Latham Thomas, founder of Mama Glow, hosted a webinar, Black Breastfeeding Week: A Reclamation, A Radical Act, to continue the conversation.

“This time is about reclaiming our bodies as whole, as sacred, as capable,” Thomas says. Ahead, she talks about what breastfeeding means for the Black community, the fraught history of breastfeeding in the Black community and its continued implications, and the impediments that continue to exist for Black mothers on their journeys to nursing.

How did Black Breastfeeding Week come about, and why is it necessary?

This is the eighth year of the annual Black Breastfeeding Week, which was founded by three Black women: Kimberly Seals Allers, author of a book called The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding and founder of the IRTH app, a data collection app for birthing people; Kiddada Green, founding executive director of Black Mothers' Breastfeeding Association; and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, a nurse-midwife and innovative culture worker. The three of them founded it to address the unique challenges that Black people face on the breastfeeding continuum.

There's a huge gap in matriculation, or how long a Black mother breastfeeds compared to a white mom. There are many factors that go into it—like returning to work sooner, lack of community support, lack of lactation professional support. Additionally, we've seen formula companies market aggressively, especially within the Black community. Then we have cultural factors—all which add up to huge impediments to breastfeeding success.

You named your seminar this week A Reclamation and A Radical Act. Can you talk a little bit about the themes you explored and the title?

The idea of reclamation stems from chattel slavery. When Black people were forcibly brought here 400 years ago, (a date we commemorated in 2019), many Black women were fertile and having babies. A lot of the mistresses, the wives of the masters, would time their pregnancies to those of the enslaved women so that they would have access to their milk.

At the time, it was also seen as gauche to breastfeed, and so they would actually send their babies into the slave quarters, and their babies would be kept and nursed until the time where they could bring them into the home to be with their mothers. The enslaved women were meant to give most of their milk to white babies, and so they had very little milk to give to their young, so they would often starve.

There was this real market that was developed around Black milk, essentially, and this market was driven by the women. So the women would actually go and bid on enslaved women, they had their indexes, almost like how you have baseball cards where there's different stats on the baseball players, on how much milk the women could produce, the quality of their milk, and the fitness of the women overall. This was how they created their own market that was very lucrative around wet nursing and feeding.

None of us can imagine being enslaved, and then having the reproductive by-product of your own birth being co-opted and used to the fullest extent for commercial purposes, of having your body being used to supplement and feed someone else's baby, not your own. That's where a lot of the fraught nature of the pain and of trauma really stems from.

So there’s a lot of generational trauma that is attached to breastfeeding in the Black community.

Yes, absolutely. Nursing engenders bonding with oxytocin and prolactin, and this cocktail of hormones which engenders mothering. If you were someone who was going to have your child sold away from your family, falling in love with your baby was not advantageous. So there was a creating of distance that has been carried down that can also show up culturally.

When we moved out of slavery and into the Reconstruction Era, you had people sharecropping and people who were wet nursing as a career. So they're still doing what they did before, but now they're doing it for very little compensation. And you have those women saying to their descendants, "I don't want you to do what I had to do." That's how we get to a third-generation gap where breastfeeding is not something that most people are doing.

What other variables come up when we talk about roadblocks to nursing in BIPOC communities?

There are a lot of layers culturally, too. If you look in Black and Latinx communities, our breasts are seen as belonging to our partner, or they are sexual organs not necessarily for feeding. Or if they are, it's for a very small period of time. There's this idea that you have to take your body back after giving birth, to achieve bodily autonomy again, which is something we had to fight for, because we didn't have it for so long. So "you don't want the baby to suck the life out of you, you don't want the baby to be too attached." There's all these things that really aren't rooted in science, but are rooted in trauma and messaging that was passed down.

How do Black mothers and families move past all this to get to a place of embracing breastfeeding if they want to?

It's about addressing the barriers—systemic and cultural, legislative, in the workplace—all the areas and forces that work to make it challenging to succeed in breastfeeding. It's about creating self-determination within your community and finding resources and support, and like-minded individuals to help nourish and support you in this time in your life. It's about doing something that ancestrally we were not able to do. We were not able to protect and feed our babies, and now we can, so we call it a reclamation and a radical act.

And even today, we still have to talk about Sha-Asia Washington, or Amber Rose Isaac, or Kira Johnson, whose names we are saying because they weren't able to even hold their babies, let alone nurse their newborns in a society that is not valuing our lives. When we do this act, when we hold our children close, and we gaze upon them and we feed them through our bodies and nourish them, we are creating a moment of deep protection and bonding, and communicating that they are safe in this world.

What does embracing breastfeeding do for the Black community as a whole?

It's knowing that fundamentally we can provide this love and support, we can sustain our children in the face and acts of violence, in the face of the marketing, and all of these things that try to challenge us from meeting this goal. Black Breastfeeding Week is about affirmation, it is about joy, it is about my mom being able to boast that she nursed me until I was a year old and 32 pounds. It's for our ancestors, who would have probably loved to have been able to provide nourishment for their babies. For us to succeed in a paradigm that's not designed for us to do so is truly radical.

There are reports that Black babies are more likely to be fed formula in the hospital. How can that be counteracted?

Yes, that happens. And one of the things that Kimberly Seals Allers writes about in her book The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding is that formula companies encourage some modern hospitals to design nurseries where the babies will be kept far away from their moms. So then, when they are hungry, they cry, and the mom is not present to see the feeding cues. By the time a baby's crying, they've already tried to show you in many ways that they're hungry. So by the time a nurse brings a mom their baby, the baby is too fussy to eat. So they're given formula.

People find out that their babies who were just going to be washed or weighed, come back and they've been fed formula, which can hinder the ability to establish a nursing bond between mother and child. There are obviously mother-baby friendly hospitals that are centering breastfeeding, but there are many institutions where there's formula put in your discharge packet.

What are some resources for mothers going into a hospital whose goal it is to breastfeed, and how can she advocate for herself?

Number one, I think perinatally, when you're still pregnant and navigating the process, start to identify supports. Not everybody is going to have a doula present, but even engaging in one of the virtual supports to help you learn how to advocate for your needs, to walk you through the pregnancy, early post-partum and newborn care, is essential. You could take a virtual class, many are free right now.

The second thing I would say is go in with a feeding plan. Really map what your intention is, how the baby's meant to be fed, how the baby's meant to be cared for in the place of birth so that you can facilitate breastfeeding.

Another thing you can do is make sure that the baby rooms in, so instead of sending the baby away, plenty of people will say, "Oh, if you want to get some rest, we'll take the baby."

Black women are statistically more likely to have jobs that don’t allow for true maternity leaves, or pumping once they’re back at work. How does that affect the ability to nurse?

In America, one in four women go back to work 10 days after having a baby. That's 25 percent of women going back to work, and a large percentage of those are Black women. They're the essential workers, especially during COVID, who are in the grocery stores, the people who are delivering your Amazon Prime. Do they have adequate conditions to pump? A clean space to pump? Can they even afford one of these expensive breast pumps to be able to safely, and in an effective and clean way, empty their breasts and then store their milk? If there are all these impediments, how do you actually get it done? How do you actually succeed? We have no true federal paid leave policy in place for parents.

How can social media and media in general help spread a positive message around breastfeeding for Black moms?

People can underestimate the value and the real game-changing power that media and the arts have on advancing our cultural beliefs around a certain issue. We show up every day to consume content on Instagram, and it makes a difference in how our lives function. We would not have had the watershed moment of the George Floyd uprising had it not been for the visual tools of social media, for better or for worse. For breastfeeding messaging, being able to see brilliant bodies, all different sizes, all different shapes and colors—seeing everyone's vulnerable and open experiences—can really push us forward. So I believe that part of what we have to do is share our triumphant and heartbreaking stories. The heartbreaking stories make us take action, and the triumphant stories give us hope.

We need to see breastfeeding on TV, we need to see people supplementing, we need to see different types of feeding expressions to help guide us in what's possible along this reproductive journey, including seeing queer and nonbinary bodies doing whatever method of feeding is possible given their scenario and where they are in process on their journeys. I think that it's a dance between this bodily autonomy, being seen, being heard, feeling a sense of belonging and community, and also storytelling around joy, hope, trauma, loss, and on the other side of that, hopefully, transcendence.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo: Jaycina, founder of The Tender Foundation.

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