What is Black Breastfeeding Week and Why It’s So Important
I could have died 3 times, I am a Black woman and gave birth in New Jersey 3 times. Black, non-Hispanic women are up to 6 times more likely to die due to complications of pregnancy compared to their white counterparts. The arguments vary as to why Black women don’t breastfeed; convenience and availability of formula, socioeconomic status, lack of images that normalize breastfeeding of Black women, lack of prenatal breastfeeding education, and the history of Black women in slavery just to name a few. There’s an “empty hole” when it comes to education and support on breastfeeding for Black women. My name is Melanie Hutton, a Certified lactation Counselor, Black woman, and facilitator for Sistahs who Breastfeed Jersey City and Paterson (SWB).
Over the last 20 years, nationally and internationally, August has been filled with promotion and campaigning for breastfeeding. In 2013, the 1st celebration of Black Breastfeeding Week (BBW) was held. BBW was created to bring awareness to 5 specific areas that affect the Black community and lactation: high Black infant mortality rates, high rates of diet-related disease, lack of diversity in the lactation field, unique cultural barriers, and desert-like food conditions.
In the Black community, there are a few breastfeeding myths, like latching a baby to the breast may be seen as a sexual act, breastfeeding is only for white or wealthy women, or that breastfeeding causes babies to grow too dependent on the mother compared to bottle fed babies. Black slaves were often tasked with “wet nursing” once they had given birth. Slaves were forced to breastfeed the baby of their assigned white mistress instead of their own. Slave mothers would often have to feed their newborn “compounds”, the only substitution for breast milk available like dirty water or plain cow’s milk. This often resulted in death for the infant; creating trauma that has plagued the Black breastfeeding community almost 400 years later.
Why Should Black Women Join a Black Breastfeeding Support Group?
Support groups provide opportunities to be with other people who share a common purpose and understand each other. Not only is a breastfeeding support group a great way to be successful at breastfeeding, being encouraged by your peers is even more beneficial. There are many factors that Black women face like returning to work too soon after delivery, lack of family and community support when it comes to breastfeeding, racial disparities and stereotyping that contribute to lack of breastfeeding success. One SWB group member who prefers to remain anonymous, said “I just didn’t have anything in common with the moms at the mommy groups I went to in Jersey City, I didn’t feel like I belonged in those groups.”
SWB is like a family where we share a meal, catch up on each other’s lives, and have fun. Each session has a theme or game for a novel way to offer education on breastfeeding while having fun. Our members keep coming back because they feel valued and appreciated and have voiced relief for finding a group composed of women who look like them and share the same experiences. Present in the group are pregnant and postpartum women and babies of varying ages. One thing that we all have in common is this group fits our needs. There is no judgement on the amount of breastmilk any baby receives; exclusive breastfeeding is not required. Our group is unique; the women are able to connect in our Facebook group first and then transition to our in-person meetings (now virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic) after becoming comfortable with each other. The women build a rapport and get to know each other prior to meeting in person.
When I gave birth for the first time 18 years ago, I had no knowledge or access to groups for pregnant women, and never expected there would be a group created just for Black breastfeeding women. Although I had no breastfeeding education and had never seen or knew anyone who breastfed I knew that’s how I wanted to feed my baby. “Although about 80 percent of all new mothers try breastfeeding, Black women have the lowest rates of initiation and duration of all ethnic groups” reports Jasmine Grant of Essence Magazine in 2019. If Black women do breastfeed, they’re often the first in their family to do so.
My personal breastfeeding experiences varied with each of my children. It wasn’t until my last pregnancy that my interest in maternal health grew and started my path to becoming a lactation consultant. I had no idea that bleeding, cracked, and sore nipples weren’t normal with my first child. I reached my full potential with my 3rd and last child. I worked as a Breastfeeding Peer Counselor for 5 years prior to and during my postpartum period. I gained access to lactation education and peer support. What some families don’t know is breastfeeding for at least 2 month decreases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome by 50%. Exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and continued breastfeeding for the 1st year or until mom and baby are ready to stop. Breastfeeding helps to normalize our babies immune systems and development while formula increases the risk of ear infection, diabetes, obesity, childhood cancer, diarrhea, and food allergies. Without that experience I would not have been successful at meeting and exceeding my own breastfeeding goals. My son and I breastfeed for 3.5 years, way beyond my ambitions.
Sistahs Who Breastfeed: More Than Just A Support Group
There is a stereotype that “Black women do not breastfeed” for this reason conversations about breastfeeding are not typically had during prenatal, postpartum and pediatric appointments with Black mothers. Support groups are an informal resource that provides healing components to a variety of problems and challenges. We also build relationships, develop meaningful friendships and trade unused or no longer needed baby items. Members also feel comfortable discussing birth control options, and gaining tools for advocacy when talking to health professionals while navigating their breastfeeding journey. Breastfeeding isn’t always challenging, it can be easier for some and SWB is the perfect “village” for those families too.
Our group started out with 1 member, Khalia Davis from Jersey City, “This group has helped me a ton!” she goes on to say “The support and encouragement I received every time I had a question kept me going. Now I’m almost at one year of breastfeeding.” SWB currently has 70 members and 2 lactation professionals as group leaders.
Founder of Perinatal Health Equity Foundation and founder of our model Sistahs Who Breastfeed (Essex county) Dr. Nastassia K. Davis, DNP, RN, IBLC supports the group with her expertise as a Registered Nurse and Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant.
The Partnership for Maternal and Child Health of Northern New Jersey, a non-profit organization, dedicated to improving the health of women, children, and families collaborated with the Perinatal Health Equity Foundation to host Sistahs Who Breastfeed in Jersey City and Paterson. Funding from the New Jersey Department of Health’s “Healthy Women, Healthy Families” -a priority health equity initiative of First Lady Tammy Murphy – makes these groups possible.
Continuing Support During COVID-19
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, SWB has had to shift from in-person to all virtual contact. When New Jersey’s “stay at home order” was put in place and we couldn’t meet in-person, we found alternative ways to do so. “I need to stay in contact with the families, we need each other” I would say to myself after being assigned to work from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So instead of weekly in-person meetings we connect via Zoom; a virtual meeting app, through Facebook and Instagram, phone calls, text, and a weekly virtual Storytime Books N’ Babies. SWB is always looking for women who want to join our “village.” SWB aims to resume in-person meetings when able to do so safely.