Since February, the country has experienced a shortage of infant formula prompted by the FDA to shut down a Michigan plant due to a recall of three brands of powdered formula. Across the country, families are struggling to find formula in their local stores as the federal government tries desperately to import overseas stock. And while some wonder why these struggling mothers simply don’t breastfeed their babies, they overlook many of the structural barriers that make it harder for many mothers of color to do so.
It is true that breastfeeding has enormous benefits for mothers and babies. As the CDC Notes, it is the best source of nutrition because breast milk changes to meet the nutritional needs of the baby as he grows. It also allows mothers to share antibodies with their babies that protect them from various diseases. Breastfeeding can also help reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. But black mothers are still less likely to breastfeed their babies than any other racial group.
The CDC reports that just over 75% of black infants are breastfed, compared to 85% of whites. As the months pass, the numbers drop significantly. According to the CDC, 20% of black women breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, compared to 29% of white women. And when a mother is not breastfeeding, her milk supply rapidly begins to declineletting it depend on the formula.
Much of this disparity is due to a lack of support from employers and the country’s health care system, which is overwhelmingly pushing black mothers into formula. According Data, most black mothers return to work just eight weeks after giving birth, which is earlier than other racial groups. And when they return, they are less likely to receive the support they need from their employers, including breaks and a private space to breastfeed.
Racism in the healthcare system poses additional challenges for mothers of color. For example, in states like Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia that have not decided to develop Medicaid, access to lactation advice and breast pumps is not available. And the hospitals in the neighborhoods with a higher concentration of Blacks are 15% less likely to provide lactation support to new mothers and push them towards formula feeding instead.
As Andrea Freeman, author of the book “Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race and Injustice,” the system that made so many black mothers addicted to infant formula now leaves them stranded in times of crisis. “Nobody takes responsibility for the fact that they pointed families of color to the formula for so many years and made people rely on it and took the choice away from them. And then when it s collapses, there is no real recognition or responsibility.