Celebrating, supporting all mothers’ breastfeeding journeys

August 13, 2021 Swedish Women's Health Team

Key takeaways:

  • There are many barriers in our society that discourage women of all races from breastfeeding.

  • A traumatic history and systemic racism within the United States can make the normalization of Breastfeeding for Black and Indigenous mothers more challenging.

  • Breastfeeding support and resources can offer the encouragement and education mothers need.

[4 MIN READ]

While some women envision breastfeeding their baby from day one and may even look forward to the bonding experience, other soon-to-be mothers don’t plan to breastfeed at all. Although there are many health benefits to breastfeeding for both mom and baby, there are also challenges and barriers that can be extremely hard to overcome during the journey.

New mothers need the education, support, encouragement and empowerment to overcome their hesitation to begin the process and keep moving forward once they’ve started. 

New mothers need the education, support, encouragement and empowerment to overcome their hesitation to begin the process and keep moving forward once they’ve started. And that’s not always the message our society sends to women.

That’s why months like Breastfeeding Awareness Month (celebrated every August) and weeks like Black Breastfeeding Week are key in shining a light on the benefits and challenges of breastfeeding.

Our society makes it more difficult and sometimes shameful for women to breastfeed, especially in public.

“Breastfeeding isn’t common in the United States,” states Sauleiha Akangbe, doula at Swedish. “We have a history of encouraging mothers not to breastfeed. Our society makes it more difficult and sometimes shameful for women to breastfeed, especially in public."

“Those barriers have always existed for white women, and over the past few decades have been even more prominent for Black women because breastfeeding resources have primarily been targeted to white women,” she continues.

We talked to Akangbe about the benefits of breastfeeding and the challenges many women may face today.

The beauty of breastfeeding

The benefits of breastfeeding for both mom and baby have been well-researched and documented, including:

  • Antibodies in breastmilk help protect babies from illness – protection that changes as your baby needs it.
  • Breastfed babies have a lower risk of developing serious, chronic conditions like asthma, obesity, diabetes and even leukemia.
  • Breastfeeding reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
  • Breastfeeding mothers are better able to maintain a healthy weight and often reach pre-pregnancy weight sooner.
  • Breastfeeding mothers have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, certain types of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
  • Breastfeeding offers mother and baby a special chance to bond and connect.

Many women who have the intention to partially or exclusively breastfeed, start the process only to end it early due to barriers created by their jobs, lack of support or feeding challenges.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, breastfeeding just isn’t common. And many women who have the intention to partially or exclusively breastfeed, start the process only to end it early due to barriers created by their jobs, lack of support or feeding challenges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that while 84% of all mothers breastfed their babies at least once, only 25.6% of mothers exclusively breastfed for six months.

Those numbers are even lower among Black women. Nearly 80% of Black mothers breastfed their babies at least once, but only 21% breastfed babies exclusively for the first six months.

Akangbe points to history and society’s current perception of breastfeeding.

“Society has attached a stigma to women breastfeeding in public,” she points out.

Our American culture also places an emphasis on women returning to work as quickly as possible. If they are lucky, they may be able to take 12 weeks of unpaid family leave. Black women represent more than half of the workforce and are often in lower-paying or hourly jobs – may not have any paid time off, making it paramount for them to return to work long before healthy breastfeeding habits are established.

And once they return to work, women are often not provided adequate break time or a comfortable, private space to pump, forcing them to either quit the process altogether or find a nearby bathroom to use for a pumping space.

Breastfeeding is beautiful. Women should not have to hide while they breastfeed. They should be able to feed their baby – without stigma, shame or stares.

“Breastfeeding is beautiful. Women should not have to hide while they breastfeed. They should be able to feed their baby – without stigma, shame or stares,” Akangbe states.

Supporting Black women and breastfeeding

“During slavery, this country relied on Black women to breastfeed white babies,” states Akangbe. “Then, when Black families were targeted by formula companies, breastfeeding became less common. Over time it became less likely for you to see the women in your family breastfeeding. Today, if Black women want to explore breastfeeding, they don’t always have the support at home.”

Since infant mortality rates are extremely high in the Black community, breastfeeding is one way to help lower that risk and keep Black babies – and mothers – safe and healthy.

Since infant mortality rates are extremely high in the Black community, breastfeeding is one way to help lower that risk and keep Black babies – and mothers – safe and healthy. Providing resources and support groups is the first step in helping Black mothers who choose to lactate.

One such group is the Black Birth Empowerment Initiative (BBEI) at Swedish, which Akangbe helped establish. BBEI (pronounced Bay) connects Black women to doulas that understand their background and current barriers and work to uplift and center a Black mother’s experience during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum – including breastfeeding.

Akangbe points out that Black women and mothers from other backgrounds have unique needs, from cultural beliefs to differences in anatomy. And, because Black women don’t always have someone they can turn to for support, it can be hard to find answers.

Swedish and the Black Birth Empowerment Initiative is encouraging Black doulas to further their education in lactation so we can provide more support to our Black mothers who choose to breastfeed.

“Our bodies look different,” Akangbe states. “Our breasts do not always look like a white women’s breast, therefore the type of support that Black women need without stigma is different,” she continues. “Swedish and the Black Birth Empowerment Initiative is encouraging Black doulas to further their education in lactation to address these differences so we can provide more support to our Black mothers who choose to breastfeed.”

BBEI is just one way Akangbe is working to address those barriers. Black mothers can also find support through national organizations, including:

Black mothers can also connect on social media:

Breastfeeding support

Although breastfeeding can be a beautiful, natural experience, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Fortunately, there are many places moms can find support – support from someone who looks like them, understands their challenges and can provide guidance and resources that fit their unique needs.

While the field is still predominately white, more Women of Color are becoming certified to provide empathetic and understanding care to mothers navigating breastfeeding.

That’s particularly true (and important) for Black and Indigenous moms and Women of Color. Today, there are more Black lactation consultants certified by the International Board of Lactation Examiners. (International Board-Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC) are healthcare professionals who specialize in lactation. They have completed rigorous training and testing to demonstrate their knowledge and must continue to stay informed on the latest, evidence-based standards of care in lactation.) While the field is still predominately white, more Women of Color are becoming certified to provide empathetic and understanding care to mothers navigating breastfeeding.

Mothers can also find support and resources at the Lytle Center for Pregnancy and Newborns at Swedish. Resources available at the Lytle Center include:

  • Breastfeeding support groups give you the opportunity to bond with other breastfeeding moms and share both challenges and advice.
  • A private appointment with a lactation consultant provides personalized support and advice for you and baby – from latch to positioning and any other questions you may have. Be sure to check and see if this service requires insurance, and if this is a covered service.
  • Lytle Resource and Retail Center is a one-stop-shop where you can buy essential breastfeeding supplies, rent a hospital grade pump or weigh your baby so you can track their weight gain progress.

At the Lytle Center, we are working toward aligning the support we offer for all cultures so we can have an inclusive and welcoming environment.

“We still have a lot of work to do to better support Black moms and women of color on their breastfeeding journey,” Akangbe admits. “At the Lytle Center, we are working toward aligning the support we offer for all cultures so we can have an inclusive and welcoming environment – from the pictures on the walls to the training our lactation consultants receive.”

Cherish the moment

Learning to breastfeed a baby can be an emotional and overwhelming process. That’s why Akangbe’s advice to new mothers is always the same.

And if breastfeeding doesn’t work out for you and your family, it’s okay. After all, a fed, happy and healthy baby is best.

“Your baby is here. Now is the time to learn your baby’s body. Pay attention to the way they feel on your chest. Look at and touch their fingers and toes,” she encourages. “Take a deep breath and relax. You will figure this out. We are here to help however we can.”

And if breastfeeding doesn’t work out for you and your family, it’s okay. After all, a fed, happy and healthy baby is best.

Connect with breastfeeding support at the Lytle Center or talk to your baby’s pediatrician if you need help.

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Find out the latest updates on how we’re handling COVID-19.

Related resources

Black Breastfeeding Week – And Why It Matters

Breastfeeding Problem-Solving Guide

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

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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