By: Shanicia Boswell | August 26, 2020
"Raising awareness about the history of Black breastfeeding and the factors that contribute to low rates of Black mothers breastfeeding is an important way to close the gap."
"I sat on the sofa crying silently between my mother and my fiancé. Tears spilled over my cheeks as we watched a movie and I held my newborn daughter. I was three days postpartum and my breasts were painfully engorged with milk. How was this happening? I had survived a med-free labor and delivery. This was supposed to be the easy part. Looking back nearly eight years ago at my breastfeeding journey, I always remember this day. I was a first-generation breastfeeder.
That day and many other days, I sat between people I loved the most and felt completely alone and isolated. My partner could not help me with breastfeeding because he was a man who had no experience around breastfeeding. My mother could not help me because she had not breastfed me or my brother. My friends could not help me because I was the only one in my friendship circle who had a baby. Like many Black millennial women, I was embarking on this journey alone.
Without the proper resources, my breastfeeding journey only lasted six months. I felt defeated. In fact, the statistics show that Black women are less likely to start breastfeeding than any other race of mother and even less likely to continue breastfeeding for six months. Only 69 percent of Black women initiate breastfeeding compared to 85 percent of white women. The question that is often asked after hearing statistics is why? There are many reasons. There are unfortunate events deeply connected to our race as a people: a history of wet nursing, oversexualization, lack of economic and familial support, are a few. For me, the question became how do we raise the numbers?
This is where Black Breastfeeding Week comes in. Black Breastfeeding Week is August 25 to 31, 2020, and is a campaign that has been part of National Breastfeeding Month for the past eight years. This year, through virtual events, Black mothers, lactation experts, and public health professionals have space to discuss their breastfeeding journeys, raise awareness, and explore public policies that address the disparities in statistics around Black maternal and infant care. Black Breastfeeding Week has become even more controversial this year because we are in a time where extreme emphasis has been placed upon race and it creates a space where white mothers feel isolated. White mothers are asking why Black women are choosing to segregate themselves, even down to the topic of breastfeeding.
As the creator of Black Moms Blog, a collaborative blogging platform for mothers of color, I am no stranger to the "why aren't we included" questions from white mothers. The truth is, weeks like this should not have to exist. Platforms like mine should not be a necessity—but they are. The needs of Black mothers as well as the specific barriers we face are left out of the overall breastfeeding conversation. The historical and cultural context as to why is important.
The History of Black Breastfeeding
Cultural reference should always be considered when discussing breastfeeding. During slavery, Black women were used as wet nurses. A wet nurse is someone who breastfeeds another woman's child. The true definition of a wet nurse states "employed," but replace that word with "forced," and the reality becomes clear. It is generational that Black women have developed a disdain for breastfeeding due to our historical relationship with wet nursing. Because of wet nursing, many Black women were unable to breastfeed their own children. Can you imagine the psychological effect that must have had on a moment that every mother should enjoy?"