Celebrating Black Breastfeeding Week

Annual Week of Education on Breastfeeding in the Black Community

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Black women have some of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the U.S.  However, every August 25-31 marks Black Breastfeeding Week, which seeks to educate the Black community on the benefits of breastfeeding and to encourage the practice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only 62% of black babies born in the US in 2010 started breastfeeding, compared to 79% of white babies.

After six months, only 36% still breastfed, compared to 52% of white babies. The CDC notes that this gap between Black women and women of other races is persistent, citing “unsupportive cultural norms, perceptions that breastfeeding is inferior to formula feeding, lack of partner support, and an unsupportive work environment” as key factors to this gap.

Black Breastfeeding Week comes a few weeks after World Breastfeeding Week, which takes place August 1-7 every year, and “calls for concerted global action to support women to combine breastfeeding and work. Whether a woman is working in the formal, non-formal or home setting, it is necessary that she is empowered in claiming her and her baby’s right to breastfeed.” 

Black Breastfeeding Week was started by Kimberly Seals Allers, Kiddada Green, and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka and founded in 2013. The annual tradition was “created because for over 40 years there has been a gaping racial disparity in breastfeeding rates.

The most recent CDC data show that 75% of white women have ever breastfed versus 58.9% of black women.” Allers cites five additional factors that underscore the need for more dialogue on breastfeeding for Black women: high black infant mortality rate, high rates of diet-related disease, lack of diversity in lactation field, unique cultural barriers among black women, and food deserts in Black communities.

 

Some argue that part of the stigma goes back to slavery. Monique Sims-Harper, director of A More Excellent Way Health Improvement Organization and a spokeswoman for the California Breastfeeding Coalition, notes that “When blacks came to this country they breastfed their babies and often their masters' babies,” with many continuing to act as wet nurses for white families after slavery. The historical legacy of breastfeeding as unpaid and later low paid labor may have had an adverse effect on black women’s attitudes towards breastfeeding.

However, it looks like attitudes towards breastfeeding in Black communities are slowly changing.

Activist Ruth Jeannoel identifies breastfeeding as an “exercise of reproductive justice” and a “revolutionary and political act”: “I choose to breastfeed in public as a way to challenge the notion that Black women do not breastfeed. Not only do we breastfeed, we can do it unapologetically, in your face.”

Black Breastfeeding Week co-founder Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, who also is a nurse and midwifery student at Yale University, identifies the role of Black breastfeeding in popular culture as evolving in a good way: “Breastfeeding is part of our history and culture and we know it ensures our children have the best start in life.

In previous years, it was unheard of for outlets like Ebony or Essence to talk about breastfeeding as it relates to social justice. Now they’re engaged. Ebony has hosted Twitter conversations with us and the Essence Fest had a lactation station this year.”

Ultimately, negative attitudes and barriers breastfeeding are not simply cultural ones. American society at large has a great discomfort with breastfeeding even while breasts are often ogled and fetishized. Systemic changes such as routinely providing lactation stations in public places and in the workplace and guaranteed maternity leave are also necessary steps to promoting breastfeeding. Until breastfeeding is made accessible for all women, there will not really be a choice between breastfeeding and formula for breastfeeding mothers.