My name is Shantae McGee, I am a Registered Nurse, Certified Lactation Counselor, and breastfeeding advocate. I support postpartum mothers and work in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I began advocating for Black mothers and babies during their breastfeeding journeys two years ago, when I discovered United States breastfeeding statistics and the lack of Black mothers depicted in breastfeeding education and marketing campaigns.
I am passionate about reducing healthcare disparities, increasing health equity and improving the health of all mothers and infants. On my work days, I support and nurture preemie babies and their mothers on their path back to health; and on my off days I support breastfeeding mothers and babies on my Instagram page, @BlackMomsBreastfeed. This online community of mothers is working together to normalize breastfeeding, fight against social stigmas, change statistics, and show that Black moms can and do breastfeed.
Why Do We Have a Black Breastfeeding Week?
Black Breastfeeding Week was created to promote breastfeeding and to cultivate a sense of community for Black mothers throughout their breastfeeding journeys. Inaugurated in 2012, its founders identified five reasons why we all need to celebrate Black breastfeeding:
- The first reason is the infant mortality rate. The infant mortality rate is twice as high for Black babies as it is for White babies. The high rate among black infants is mostly tied to their being born pre-term, very small (low birth weight), or very sick. These babies need the immune system boosters and nutritional benefits of their mothers’ milk the most.
- There is a high prevalence of diet-related diseases that may be reduced or protected against by breast milk feeding, including childhood obesity, type II diabetes, upper respiratory infections, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
- There is a need for more diversity among lactation providers. Breastfeeding advocacy and leadership has been spearheaded predominantly by White women. This lack of diversity among care providers can result in decreased cultural competence, serving as a barrier to connecting with Black women and children. Furthermore, the low percentage of Black lactation providers perpetuates the misconception that breastfeeding is not “normal” in the Black community.
- There is limited lactation support in urban communities in general. The founders of Black Breastfeeding Week refer to this as “first food deserts.” It is difficult to encourage women to breastfeed without their having access to the appropriate support in or near their communities.
- While all women who choose to breastfeed will likely experience some challenges, Black women have unique cultural barriers and a complicated history with breastfeeding. Black women’s’ painful role during slavery of being forced away from their own children to serve as wet nurses to their masters’ children, stereotypes and misinformation within the community itself, and a lack of breastfeeding role models whom Black women can identify with, all serve as additional hurdles to the already challenging journey. These topics need to be both acknowledged and discussed to break down walls and build relationships.
Some Background — The Current United States breastfeeding statistics
Despite enormous improvements in recent years, current breastfeeding reports collected by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that disparities by race continue to exists. In the United States, 86 percent of White women initiate breastfeeding. In comparison, 85 percent of Hispanic women, and 68 percent of Black women do the same. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for every infant during the first six months of life, and continuing to breastfeed as complementary foods are added to the baby’s diet. The AAP also recommends that breastfeeding continue for one year or longer if desired by both the mother and infant. In agreement, the World Health Organization recommends continued breastfeeding, with complementary foods, up to and even past two years of age. Despite these recommendations, only 55 percent of US babies continue to breastfeed at six months of age.
What Can I Do?
Family and Friends. If you are an experienced breastfeeding mom, talk to all women you know about your breastfeeding experience, regardless of their cultural background. The process by which we make decisions is greatly impacted by our inner circles. Those closest to us and their opinions can impact motivation when it comes to a woman’s decision to breastfeed. If you know someone who is expecting, ask if she is considering breastfeeding, encourage her to write down a list of questions or concerns about breastfeeding to discuss with her OBGYN, volunteer to attend a prenatal class with her, or offer to watch an informational breastfeeding video.
Community. There are many ways in which the community can support breastfeeding mothers. Early childhood centers can play an important role in sustaining breastfeeding by welcoming these mothers, supporting feeding plans, allowing mothers a private space to feed onsite, and educating their staff on the safe handling of breast milk. Collaborate with churches, libraries, and community groups to organize seminars and classes nearby mothers’ homes. Peer support programs, consisting of support provided by breastfeeding mothers from the same community, have proven to be very valuable. New mothers’ most preferred source of advice and tips on motherhood come from other mothers. Suggest that your local health department or WIC (Women, Infant and Children) office organize a mother meet-up or locate your nearest La Leche League community group.
Social Networks. The CDC has identified social marketing as an “excellent tool” to promote public health. Increasing the visibility of women breastfeeding can not only promote breastfeeding, but also helps all people understand the benefits of breastfeeding. A study conducted by the University of California San Francisco conducted interviews with African American women on how they received information on breastfeeding. These mothers expressed finding support and motivation by being a part of online groups with women who both looked like them and shared similar experiences. The National Institutes of Health suggests that future breastfeeding strategies for African American families include social media platforms as they present the opportunity to create more innovative and targeted interventions.
How Else Can I Begin to Celebrate this Week?
Black Breastfeeding Week is all about encouraging Black women to keep breastfeeding to ensure that all infants have the healthiest start to life. I encourage women of all backgrounds to connect with other breastfeeding moms, post breastfeeding selfies, attend a local community meet-up, and if you own a business I encourage you to diversify the women and infants in your marketing campaigns, not just this week, but every week. Not sure where to begin?
- Ask your child’s pediatrician what lactation services are provided in their office and call your insurance provider to ask which services are covered under your plan.
- The National Breastfeeding Hotline for the Office of Women’s Health can be reached at 1-800-994-9662. Their breastfeeding peer counselors can answer breastfeeding questions and connect moms with other resources to provide breastfeeding help.
- Try Medela’s Ask the LC for one-on-one email consultation
- Visit @BlackMomsBreastfeed on Instagram or the official Black Breastfeeding Week website to get started!