Even today, breastfeeding mothers face many challenges. And for black women, it can be even harder.
Historical implicit biases that black women are not interested in breastfeeding may mean that black mothers do not receive enough lactation support after childbirth. Forty-five percent of baby-friendly hospitals — those that have adopted a set of policies to ensure their facilities support breastfeeding — are concentrated in cities where black people make up 3% or less of the population, a reported the ACLU in 2019. Hospitals in communities with above-average black populations are less likely to promote nursing than hospitals in other neighborhoods, according to the civil liberties group.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women also struggle to breastfeed successfully because they return to work sooner after giving birth and have less access to professional support than white women.
I learned firsthand how difficult it can be to continue breastfeeding after returning to work. I was a first year resident when I had my first baby and didn’t know my rights as a nursing mother. There was no lactation room at the time in my residency program, so I had to look for rooms to express my milk. I was often afraid to ask to go pump (even though I was in a pediatric residency program) and felt I had to overcompensate for my absences.
Ten years ago I had my first child – a healthy, beautiful girl. I had decided to breastfeed her, no matter how difficult it was, because I had seen the beauty of breastfeeding from a close friend who had a baby she had exclusively breastfed.
Amara, my daughter, had a connection with the tongue and therefore the latch was very painful at the beginning. I had no idea about breastfeeding. I remember briefly talking to a lactation consultant at the hospital and walking out with a bunch of paperwork.
Amara and I finally figured it out and I was able to breastfeed her for about 11 months. The trip was not easy. In addition to not having a pumping room at my workplace, I was very stressed and often didn’t have much milk to express.
Unfortunately, my experience as a black professional woman is not unusual. Statistics show that rates of breastfeeding initiation and duration among black women continue to be lower than those of all other races and ethnicities. Several factors contribute to this, including the history of slavery in this country, implicit biases, lack of knowledge and lack of role models in the black community.
I cannot stress enough the importance of a strong support network. If you are a nursing mother and don’t have a family or community support system, there are groups like La Leche League International. I recommend trying to find one that is culturally sensitive to you; members will likely have shared experiences and advice.
We know the health benefits of breastfeeding. We must do all we can to encourage and support new mothers, recognizing that breastfeeding is not possible or desirable for everyone. We can help each other by being non-judgmental and supporting each other.
I hope Congress will pass legislation requiring universal multi-week paid maternity leave, insurance coverage for lactation support and breast pumps, on-site child care, and workspace for express milk.
Until we get laws that cover everyone and truly support new families, companies need to step up. As more and more people return to the workplace after several months of working from home, there will be nursing mothers in the ranks. Employers should support breastfeeding mothers by having clean and spacious breastfeeding rooms, and there should be a clear culture in the workplace to give women the time they need to express their milk, take time if necessary and don’t feel guilty about it.