Breastfeeding and Black Women: Raising Awareness About Infant Nutrition

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Recently, a group of pediatricians, parents and breastfeeding advocates came together via social media, as well as in community centers and hospitals across the country in celebration of Black Breastfeeding Week.

While it’s true that Black mothers have started breastfeeding their babies more within the past decade, lactation specialists say there’s still a lot of work to be done. For instance, misconceptions about breastfeeding, as well as institutional influences that discourage natural bonding between black women and their babies, still need to be dispelled. According to Think Progress, Black women were 20 percent less likely to nurse their infants than their white and Hispanic peers.

Black Breastfeeding Week is now in its third year, and is the ideal event for Black women to connect with other breastfeeding mothers, talk about their experiences with nursing and hold healthcare professionals accountable for not encouraging breastfeeding, especially in communities of color.

Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, one of the founders of Black Breastfeeding Week, says that the event will hopefully encourage more discussion between Black mothers, since advertising and health messages about breastfeeding don’t necessarily encourage Black women to nurse. Sangodele-Ayoka , who is a Yale midwifery student and nurse, also stated that this health initiative will also help to raise awareness about food injustice in Black communities, and provide community clinic employees with accurate and culturally sound information about breastfeeding.

The efforts of Black Breastfeeding Week are proving to be effective. Major Black publications like Essence and Ebony were previously unwilling to talk about breastfeeding as a social justice issue, but Ebony has hosted conversations on Twitter with Black Breastfeeding Week, and the organization set up a lactation station at Essence Fest this year as well.

Many Black women have been reluctant to breastfeed because of the history of wet-nursing in the Black community, in which Black women who were enslaved breastfed the children of their masters. This has caused many African-American women to view nursing as demeaning and inappropriate. A number of Black women also cite having a lack of role models or encouragement from family and friends when it comes to breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding poses a number of health benefits for Black babies and children, and can be positive for Black families as a whole. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children who are breastfed for up to a year have a lower risk of cancer, heart disease, sclerosis and juvenile diabetes. Breast milk is also rich in vitamin D, which is essential for bone health. Studies have also shown that nursing has great psychological benefits for mother and baby. Breastfeeding releases hormones such as oxytocin, which helps a mother to bond with her child and engage in nurturing behavior. Children who are in environments where they are protected are more likely to exhibit healthy emotional and psychological behavior as they age.

Black Breastfeeding Week has definitely become an advocacy space for those who support breastfeeding and its many benefits. The organization is also working to ensure that breastfeeding mothers receive fair treatment in the workplace, and that women are properly educated about nursing, regardless of income level.