In The News
Breastfeeding: Is Slavery Behind the Low Rates Among Black Women?
August 1-7 was World Breastfeeding Week—an annual campaign, organized by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, where over 170 countries worldwide pay attention to our breasts and their power to give us stronger, healthier babies.
And every year, around this time, I start to look at who is breastfeeding and who is not and question why more black women aren’t breastfeeding. And despite some recent improvements, statistically African American women still fall in the "not" category--and if they do start they don't continue for long. In fact, for over 30 years, African-American women have had the lowest breastfeeding rates, and though the numbers have increased somewhat in recent years, black moms still have the lowest rates of all ethnicities. And when it comes to the gold standard of infant nutrition—six months of exclusive breastfeeding, among African Americans the rate is only 20% compared to 40% among whites.
Some of these forces have been brewing for decades. To get to the bottom of the matter, I started to delve back. Wayyy back. Truth is, a long time ago, black women were notorious for nursing. In fact, slave owners used and purchased black women as wet nurses for their own children, often forcing these mothers to stop nursing their own infants to care for others.
“On the one hand, wet nursing claimed the benefits of breastfeeding for the offspring of white masters while denying or limiting those health advantages to slave infants. On the other hand, wet nursing required slave mothers to transfer to white offspring the nurturing and affection they should have been able to allocate to their own children,” writes historian Wilma A. Dunaway, in the book The African American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, published by Cambridge University Press. And since breastfeeding reduces fertility, slave owners forced black women to stop breastfeeding early so that they could continue breeding, often to the health detriment of their own infants, Dunaway writes.
That's powerful stuff.
But there’s more to our story than a stunted and complex breastfeeding experience at the hands of slave owners hundreds of years ago, though many may argue that some vestiges of slavery still exist in the mindset of the black community—perhaps some historical trauma. Or an insidious thinking that breastfeeding is something we did for others and not ourselves.
Years later, aggressive marketing by the formula companies in the 1930s and 40s made formula feeding the choice of the elite, “the substance for sophisticates” —white or black. And who doesn’t want to be like the rich and famous. That marketing continues to this day, down to the formula company-sponsored bag of goodies you probably received on the way out of the hospital. Then there’s something I call the National Geographic factor—that is, most of the images we see of black women breastfeeding are semi-naked women in Africa whose lives seem so far away from our modern, African American lifestyle and experience.
Whatever the reason, with the infant and maternal mortality rates climbing to catastrophic levels in our community, both black mothers and black babies need the protective health benefits of breastfeeding. According to the CDC, black babies are twice as likely as white infants to die before their first birthday. A 2001 study in Pediatrics concluded that an increase in African-American breastfeeding rates alone could reduce this disparity.
Recently, I was honored to be named an IATP Food & Community Fellow with a special mandate to increase access and awareness of this “first food” in our community. To do so, I am on a mission. And I need your help. How can we get more black women to breastfeed? And so so longer? Latina women and other women of color have much stronger breastfeeding rates. Is there something that we can learn from them? I’m looking for your suggestions and observations to create a new conversation about breastfeeding and its benefits. Please leave a comment here.
Our babies need this.