Black Breastfeeding Week – and Why it Matters

August 20, 2020 Swedish Women's Health Team

Allison LaRoche, MD and pediatrician at Swedish is passionate about breastfeeding. As a mom and pediatrician, she sees firsthand the struggle that comes with breastfeeding. It’s a journey she can empathize with mothers about. 

“I really encourage women on whatever path they have chosen,” she shares. “First time mothers might struggle with latching or keeping up their milk supply. I get it. I’m here to listen and support women however I can.”

One of the key components of success for many breastfeeding mothers is the support, which is often available from friends and family members. As a Black woman, that experience was a little different for Dr. LaRoche. 

“I breastfed my daughter exclusively for her first six months, then continued until she was 22 months,” she shares. “That wasn’t something my mom or older sister had done. It’s not an easy road for Black mothers, for a variety of reasons. There aren’t many role models – people who look like us whether that’s a friend who breastfed, a Black lactation consultant or family members that went through the same experience.”

“But it was something that I was committed to doing,” she continues. “As a pediatrician, I know the health benefits of breastfeeding and I also wanted to be able to connect with the parents I see in clinic about the challenges of breastfeeding.”

The health benefits of breastfeeding are well documented and include (among many others):

  • Delivers the ideal nutrition to growing babies
  • Helps boost a baby’s immunity with much-needed antibodies from mom (especially important now during COVID-19)
  • Helps reduce the risk of certain diseases – for mom (diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer) and baby (sudden infant death syndrome, allergies, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and more). This is especially important in the Black community that tends to see higher rates of diet-related disease and infant mortality.
  • Promotes a healthy weight for the baby

Despite these benefits, research proves that there is significant racial disparity when it comes to breastfeeding. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 75% of white women have ever breastfed, compared to 58.9% of Black women. Reasons for this inequity range from historical trauma to a lack of support and resources for Black mothers. 

Now, Black Breastfeeding Week is shining the spotlight on Black mothers, and communities around them, to help close the gap. To celebrate, Dr. LaRoche shares her experience as a Black breastfeeding mother and insight as a pediatrician.

Understanding the history and pain of Black women and breastfeeding

“There is a painful history of breastfeeding in this country, and that influences how Black women look at it,” says Dr. LaRoche. 

Enslaved Black women didn’t have a choice in whether or not they were able to breastfeed their own child, and they were often forced to breastfeed a slaveholder’s infant. 

“Black women had no control over breastfeeding and that is why many grandmothers may not be as forthcoming in encouraging women to breastfeed. It’s an understandable trauma,” Dr. LaRoche explains. 

This history plays a very big role in the lack of role models when it comes to Black women breastfeeding. “I was the exception rather than the rule,” she continues. “Having a grandmother, mother, sister or friend who you can talk to and say, ‘Oh, I’ve done this. I know what that’s like. Let’s talk about this together,’ goes a long way. Not having that support can really hold women back from being successful.”

Dr. LaRoche points to her job and colleagues for helping boost her determination.

“Being a pediatrician pushed me more to breastfeed,” she explains. “When I was working at my previous employer, my colleagues – most of whom were white – came back from maternity leave and were still breastfeeding. That helped make it easier for me to come back, bring my pump and advocate for pumping at work.”

The availability and encouragement to pump at work leads to another racial disparity for Black women.

Breastfeeding barriers at work 

When women go back to work affects the success of breastfeeding. The CDC reports that women who return to work before 12 weeks are less likely to continue breastfeeding. Dr. LaRoche hears this from her parents as well. 

“Once you return to work, you need to have the support, time and place to pump breastmilk,” she says. 

When you don’t have a place to pump, coworkers able to cover for you, or the ability to take a paid break, it can make it that much harder to step away from your responsibilities. And, this is a burden that falls on Black moms even more heavily than their white counterparts. 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black women’s labor participation rate is higher at 60.5%, compared to 56.8% of white women. That means more Black women make up the workforce. That, coupled with the fact that 70.7% of Black women are their family’s breadwinners, makes it difficult to meet the demands of pumping in the workforce. 

The ACLU also points out the Black people are less likely to hold jobs with greater flexibility, stability and better benefits – again, making it more difficult (and sometimes impossible) to take advantage of paid family leave or access to a safe and clean pumping room. 

While Washington’s Paid Family and Medical Leave guarantees 12 weeks paid leave to employees who work about 16 hours a week is a start, Dr. LaRoche points out there is much to be done. 

“The onus really needs to be on human resource departments to help moms navigate when and where to pump,” she suggests. “They can share that information when mothers request maternity leave and present it as an option available for all mothers.”

Colleagues can also play a role in creating a supportive work environment for pumping moms. 

“We can destigmatize the process and instead of making it punitive for a new mom to step away for 20 minutes, we can create an encouraging environment – one where colleagues offer to cover for their coworker for 20 minutes and one where managers and leadership recognize these benefits as a way to build morale and retain talented, dedicated employees.”

Acknowledge your implicit bias

An implicit bias is an attitude or stereotypes that unconsciously affect our understanding, actions and decisions. Everyone holds some type of implicit bias, and Dr. LaRoche encourages others to confront theirs – especially when it comes to Black women breastfeeding. 

After birth, Black women are more likely to be given formula in the hospital compared to white women. They are also less likely to receive encouragement and resources – such as additional visits with a lactation consultant – than white mothers. 

“There is a documented implicit bias in healthcare when it comes to Black individuals. This is true for supporting Black mothers in breastfeeding,” Dr. LaRoche shares. “It’s likely not done out of spite, but maybe someone is taking their experience working with one Black mother and applying it to every Black mother they see in the maternity ward. Maybe they see it as being helpful and that they’re just cutting to the chase by giving a new Black mom formula.”

Instead of going through the motions, Dr. LaRoche encourages everyone to stop and interrupt that implicit bias. 

“You have to put forth even more effort to confront ideas or thoughts you hold,” she says. “You need to go the extra mile. Check in more with Black mothers. Get that extra lactation consultant to ensure that Black mothers have access to the same resources as white mothers.”

Supporting Black Breastfeeding Week is good for public health

“At the end of the day, breastfeeding is good for mom and baby,” Dr. LaRoche explains. “Those health benefits may be even more important for Black mothers and their families. Breastfeeding can help reduce the rate of diseases that disproportionately affect Black individuals. That’s a big deal in a disenfranchised community.”

After all, when one community is healthier, we are all healthier.

But, Black Breastfeeding Week is about more than improving health. It’s also about chipping away at the pain associated with breastfeeding in the Black community. 

“We can reclaim that honor and choose to nourish our babies however we see fit,” says Dr. LaRoche. 

It’s a journey that will require all of us to work together and support one another. And when we do that, we can strengthen and improve the bonds in our neighborhoods and across communities.

Join Our Zoom Breastfeeding Support Groups in Celebration of Black Breastfeeding Week

Monday, August 24th | 11:00am to 12:30pm

Led by Brenda Broussard, PhD, RN, IBCLC

Zoom ID: https://zoom.us/j/95675918842

 

Thursday, August 27th | 12:30pm to 2:00pm

Led by Camloan (Kim) Ricks, RN, IBCLC

Zoom ID: https://zoom.us/j/92195401856

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Related resources

Just had a baby and need support at home? Swedish doulas to the rescue

Childbirth in a pandemic: How hospitals are keeping mothers and babies safe

Overcoming three common breastfeeding challenges

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

Whether you are seeking gynecological advice, need help navigating your way through the menopause stage of life or researching a recent breast cancer diagnosis, the Swedish Women's Health Team is committed to helping women find the information they need to live happy and healthy lives.

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