Less than two months ago, I celebrated my third Black Breastfeeding Week. Since first hearing about the holiday in 2016, I have grown as a mother, spent a ton of time researching, and have gotten pregnant again. I am now awaiting my second breastfeeding journey.
We know all about the benefits of breastfeeding. But things need to change to increase Black breastfeeding rates.
Black women have the lowest rates of initiation out of any race group. On average, Black women breastfeed for 6.5 weeks, and only 65 percent of Black mothers attempt breastfeeding compared to 81.5 percent of white and 81.9 of Hispanic moms. However, what we seldom address is that many historical, as well as contemporary factors, have led to low rates of breastfeeding for Black women.
It's easy to tell Black women that they need to breastfeed more. But to say it without considering the surrounding social and economic circumstances is irresponsible.
To increase and extend breastfeeding rates in the Black community, we have to address the systemic disparities that exist as obstacles. As with all things, a mixture of gender discrimination and racism interact to limit Black women's ability to feed their children.
Black women work long hours and receive minimal benefits. Some of the most current figures suggest that Black women make 38 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women. Unfortunately, for Black women, a college education isn’t enough to protect us from wage discrimination. Despite showing promising performance and educational attainment, Black women are still more likely to be employed in lower paying positions. Even with bachelors degrees, Black women make 37 percent less than white men.
The unfairness Black women experience in payment create challenges that range from taking care of everyday expenses paying student loans. On average, Black women graduate with $30,400 in student loan debt compared to $22,000 for white women and $19,500 for white men. Lower wages often come with lower employee benefits. Breastfeeding success is highly dependent on the overall mental and physical health of the mom.
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To get the necessary prenatal and postnatal care, you need adequate insurance coverage. With so many Black women affected by the maternal mortality crisis as well as discrimination in healthcare, it’s particularly important that companies and federal programs have health care coverage that provides access to quality health services. Even more than doctor visits, insurance helps to reduce the out of pocket costs that come with breastfeeding, like breast pump acquisition and lactation consultants.
Also, Black women are more likely to be employed in jobs that provide six weeks or less, if any, maternity leave. Establishing a breastfeeding routine takes time. Many American women are left without the opportunity to bond with their babies, let alone breastfeed. Even Black women who report financial stability and insurance coverage report experiencing reoccurring bias in the medical system.
Being offered formula before breastfeeding initiation is strongly linked to lower breastfeeding success. However, hospital professionals are nine times more likely to offer formula to Black women than white women. Although a combination of factors is at play, one of the most expected reasons for this is the belief that Black women don’t breastfeed. Similarly, Black women who reject formula are often meet with lactation professionals who are severely undereducated about Black social customs and the complicated history between Black women and breastfeeding.
Their ignorance, paired with medical bias and the stresses of new motherhood, often leaves Black women unsupported on their breastfeeding journeys.
Before Black women can increase breastfeeding rates, our society must put more programs and policies in place that make breastfeeding practical for women regardless of career field, income, or educational level. Until then, it’s unrealistic to expect Black women to have the ability to accommodate the demands that accompany breastfeeding.