It is widely known that African American women have the lowest rates when it comes to breastfeeding in the US. The CDC states that black women are 20% less likely to breastfeed compared to white mothers. This is not only evident as portrayed throughout everyday interactions I have, but through social media, and the entertainment industry as well. And while I don’t necessarily advocate people following something simply because celebrities do it-we have to acknowledge we do not hear about many celebrity AA moms breastfeeding or
being as open about it, like their Caucasian and Hispanic counterparts are. Beyoncé, Halle Berry, Michelle Obama, Tia Mowry, Erykah Badu and a few others have acknowledged that they did in fact breastfeed. But we still would never see the same publicity given by them, or these celeb moms being as open about it like Angelina Jolie or even more recently Gwen Stefani, Miranda Kerr or Olivia Wilde.
And while many AA moms may breastfeed, it is often taboo to speak about or even acknowledge that it is something that you do in fact do-let alone posting a photo of it. For example, the backlash ofKarlesha Thurman-a young mother whose graduation photo emerged online a few months ago, showing her publicly breastfeeding (and without a cover, imagine that!), there was tons of support-but there was also tons of negative comments. Sadly enough as I scoured page to page to page, a majority of the negative comments came from black women. Many of the comments ranged from “distasteful” to even more misogynistic comments about breast being for a man’s pleasure and not for a baby (this comment had me behind my computer ready to blow a fuse, especially since this was said by a woman). While there were more black women were condemning this young woman (in my opinion) for doing what was best for her child instead of encouraging her, she was encouraged by African American women, including myself; but it still seemed as if most of the encouragement came from outside of our race.
One of the biggest barriers in the AA community in regards to breastfeeding is the ease and convenience of formula use. Especially among those who may be considered to be living at or below the poverty level. Those who may rely on WIC may also opt not to breastfeed. (The following this is solely my opinion, from my experience with WIC). I was on WIC with Alyssa (I was 20 years old at the time, and had no idea about breastfeeding or formula feeding). I was told by my OB/GYN that I should look into breastfeeding and he recommended that I go through WIC so that I could not only get help but take one of their classes. Well, boy was he wrong. Not once before Aly was born was breastfeeding even brought up at the appointments. I would ask a question and I would be told the LC was not on the premises and that they could have her call me. Of course, no one called, and each time I called I was sent to voicemail-but once again not one call was returned. But they did make sure to reiterate how much formula I could receive at each appointment and I wouldn’t have to worry about purchasing formula because I would have vouchers. Oh and my favorite part-being told that since I was so young I wouldn’t want my breast to sag from breastfeeding and that I wouldn’t have to stay attached to my baby all the time if I formula fed (oy vay). Luckily by the time I
went into labor, even though I was still undecided, I did lean toward breastfeeding simply because I wanted to do what was best for my baby. The nurses at the hospital were so supportive of my decision and made sure that whatever I needed to be successful when I left their care it was at my fingertips. And that came in handy. The day Alyssa was born a close relative died, so within a few days of being discharged, we went out of town. I was very tired and overwhelmed with the new baby and wanted to just give her a bottle, but I didn’t! I was so proud of myself for not letting factors out of my control and my emotions deter me from what I wanted to do. About two weeks after we were home, the nurse even came by with an LLC to check on my progress. The encouragement felt wonderful and it truly made me feel as if I was doing what was best for my baby (as a young mom having that reassurance meant the world to me).
And do you want to know when I finally was put into the WIC breastfeeding class? When she was 8 months old-yeah thanks but no thanks. While women of all races use WIC, let’s just be real-there are lots of AA women who utilize it as well. Now while I am sure things have changed with WIC over the last 10 years, I can’t help but feel that if I had that experience, and was constantly told about “free formula” that countless other young mothers were/are being told the exact same. Maybe not in all areas of the country, but I doubt that I was an isolated occurrence.
There is also a lack of encouragement from family and friends because more than likely they did not breastfeed (or they attempted, so when you hear the horror stories of how they tried one time and it was just so bad that they stopped). Therefore they don’t feel the need to understand the health benefits of not only mom but the baby as to why we would want “a baby on our tit”. As an AA breastfeeding mother, I and several of my counterparts are often referred to as being “white” or not told we are not normal ( which you should hear the comments I get about cloth diapering-seriously have you seen Lalabye’s and Meraki’s? Super cute dipes). The African American culture is so that anyone who does something out of the norm or something considered to be “white” is relentlessly mocked and ridiculed for not being “black enough”. Unfortunately, this doesn’t only apply to breastfeeding (you know this is especially true if you have ever been ridiculed for speaking what is deemed “proper English” or listening to something other than urban radio).
More often than not, if you did not come from a household supportive of breastfeeding, you will hear comments like-give that baby a bottle, “the baby isn’t getting enough milk” even to things being said about breastfeeding is disgusting. This can be very difficult to hear for any mom (of any race as well). But imagine being a young mom or a FTM period, and wanting to do this for your baby because you know that it is best? It can be very hard to want to continue when you are constantly being torn down by the choice you made for your baby. And more often than not the criticism and lack of support comes from other black women.
I find this very much so the case with the older generation of African American women. While my mother was supportive, my grandmother was as well-but to an extent. She never openly discouraged it, but she would make little comments that would allude to her thinking I should be giving my baby formula. And when I put my children in daycare-oh my I can’t even describe how horrible my experience was. Wanting to breastfeed past one year made the daycare providers uncomfortable. Alyssa luckily didn’t enter child care until she was 12 months; however the caregiver for that age group (an older black woman), was not very accepting of my wanting to nurse my baby still (If I am paying $650 a month for 1 child to be in daycare, NO ONE is going to tell me I can’t nurse her-and I mean NO ONE). My experience with Andrew was equally as bad, as he started childcare around 6 months of age. Drew was staying with an in-home care provider (an older lady who even kept my sister and I when we were younger) while I worked; although I was sending 5 bottles daily of pumped breast milk, it wasn’t until a few weeks after being in her care I found out, she was dumping my milk and giving him formula! I only found out due to him developing a rash from the formula she was giving him-it took several trips to the pediatrician to figure out what was causing it. Can you say pissed? Not only was she dumping my liquid gold, but she was giving my child something that I had not authorized her to give. She formula hopped with him apparently (regular formula, soy, and sensitive-because she couldn’t figure out which kind to give him). Seriously-to this day when I think about that I get totally pissed off. Needless to say, he never went back to that provider. But these are the experiences that not only have I encountered but other AA women who I know that breastfeed (and it’s sad to say I can count on 3 fingers how many I know that breastfeed). It’s sad that I am not the only woman who has had to deal with caregivers or family going behind their back and giving a baby something simply because they felt it was best for “your” child. There is always the talk of the need to supplement or adding cereal to the bottle early on when really there is no need unless a doctor says so. And my little guy was a chunky thing (you see that picture? Look how
big he was at four months, did it look like he was starving?), so I am pretty sure he was getting enough milk. Besides having the gaul the provider had to feed my child what she wanted instead of what I wanted, why is it so hard for black women to support other black women with the choice to breastfeed?
I was so lucky that my mom and dad were supportive of me. Now yes I did get the occasional give a bottle-but overall they were my main cheering corner. Because of that I exclusively breastfeed Alyssa for 17 months (yep you see how big she is in that picture, she was still EBF) and Andrew for 15 months (it was hard to keep going after that sitter fiasco, but I kept stimulating production and was able to keep going). However, with Isla things took a turn for the worse. While I had my husband who was very supportive, I can sadly say that not everyone in his family was. I only made it 3 months breastfeeding her, before she switched over to formula, and even though she is now 20 months, it still breaks my heart thinking about it (mom guilt). The comments ranged from she’s not getting enough milk, she was too skinny to we needed to supplement, oh my favorite “she ain’t getting nothing out of there because that **** has dried up”! With my returning to work the day she hit six weeks, it was very hard for me since I was used to being with the kids a little longer. I was already overwhelmed at putting in my eyes a very new baby in child care, but to have to go around
family and endure crazy comments made it worse. So I was not able to succeed like I wanted with her. I ended up giving up breastfeeding completely within a few weeks of returning to work simply because I was stressed and I let what other people said to get to me. You would think that after successfully making it with two kids, that I wouldn’t have had a problem. We will be expecting baby #4 in October, so I will once again give it go, and I am bound and determined not to let anyone deter me from breastfeeding my child. (But I do have to add the highlight of my breastfeeding experience came with Isla- I breastfed while riding a camel. My husband missed the shot, but I have to say it was the coolest thing ever).
But there is good news-breastfeeding rates among AA women have been on a steady rise since 2000. The problem, however, remains that it is still not normalized within our community. There are several organizations across the country that are seeking to change that. With the help of Facebook pages like Black Women Do Breastfeed that have increased in popularity-I can only hope that one day we will not need to have this type conversation (as far as justifying why we need a Black Breastfeeding Week), but instead when we see a fellow black mom breastfeeding it won’t be something to gawk at (because there are those that do), but to realize that it’s just what moms do. I hope that when it comes to ANY mom of EVERY race, that one day people will stop gawking, but even with the most recent report of the mom in Charlotte being asked to go to a bathroom, we still have a ways to go before it is normalized across the board. Moms of all races have issues when it comes to BF’ing, so the struggle is indeed not exclusive to African American’s. But since we remain a group with the lowest bf’ing rates, it is important to emphasize to one another not only the health benefits for mom and baby but that we can do this and that we will support one another in doing so.
Update: This is an old post of mine. But I am so happy to report that Beans and I are successfully breastfeeding! She is an old pro at this point and I absolutely love the bonding. The feeling and regret that I had about not made it a long time with Isla seem to have subsided. Being surrounded by other nursing moms or moms who have attempted to nurse but have given up due to social pressure is disheartening. But I hope that as we grow as a community I hope that we can help #normalizebreastfeeding among black women across the US.
Update 2: It now been two years since this post. But Sarah and I made it 23 months breastfeeding before she self-weaned. I loved every minute of it! Although I have stopped bf’ing I will continue my mission to #normalizebreastfeeding.
Love of impromptu dance parties, 80’s cartoons, and horizontal life pauses (aka naps); Natasha Brown is a stay at home mom of 4 kids, and wife to one lucky guy! In her spare time, she is co-editor of Grits & Grace, as well as editor for The Mother Hustler Blog and Creative Director for the Mother Hustler podcast.