By Stacy Davis, NWA Health Equity and Community Partnerships Manager
Black Breastfeeding Week (August 25-31) is celebrating its 10th anniversary - This year’s theme is: A New Foundation - built on racial equity, cultural empowerment, and community engagement, and is powered by the collective resilience of Black women and their communities! Historically, this week has brought about the question of why this week is needed. To learn why, click here.
Black Breastfeeding Week is more than shifting the narrative about Black women and breastfeeding - It is...
Moreover, it’s about addressing the inequities the lactation and birthing professions continue to perpetuate for women of color, particularly Black women, to enter these fields, once dominated by the Black community.
It’s no secret Black infants are less likely to have been breastfed than any other race or ethnicity (CDC, 2022). According to the CDC (August 2022), 74.1 percent of Black women attempt breastfeeding after giving birth, compared to White (85.3 percent) and Hispanic (83 percent) women. When looking further into exclusivity and duration, 41.5 percent of Black women breastfeed exclusively at 6 months, in comparison to White (60 percent) and Hispanic (52.5 percent) women (CDC). Black infants at 3 months of age breastfeed at a rate of 58 percent, whereas White infants at the same age breastfeed at a rate of 72.7 percent. But why? Why does breastfeeding continue to be a public health issue for Black mothers? One of the biggest contributors is the lack of access to culturally sensitive and relevant breastfeeding support and resources in Black communities and the resounding fact that Blacks continue to be subjected to systemic racism which contributes to the high maternal and infant mortality and morbidity rates.
If access to resources and culturally sensitive, relevant care and support is the issue, then where are institutions and organizations creating spaces and position for Black and Brown birthing and lactation professionals? The answer: systemic racism and institutional barriers.
Historically, the practice of birth and breastfeeding was ‘owned’ by the West Africans.
These women, known as “granny midwives,” attended the births of Black and white women in the South and provided breastfeeding education and support However, this tradition was soon stolen when the practice of homebirths and midwives were professionalized in 1765 when the first formal training program for midwives was opened, in Philadelphia, by Dr. William Shippen (Midwifery Today, 2000). By the late 1800s, less births were taking place in the comfort of homes with the presence of granny midwives, but rather in hospitals with white male doctors. Granny midwives were blamed for the high rates of mortality and morbidity amongst women and infants due to their said “lack of education, skill, and cleanliness." Despite the history of birth and breastfeeding in the Black community, Black women only attest for less than 10 percent of the nation’s midwives and lactation consultants.
We must grow the number of Black and Brown birth and breastfeeding professionals. One step towards that goal is to recognize and dismantle the systemic and institutionalized barriers to obtaining and sustaining these professional credentials and create adequately paid opportunities. Time, expertise, and skills do not come without a price and a sacrifice.