The Breastfeeding Support Black Moms Need

August 24, 2020
black breastfeeding week, breastfeeding support for black moms

in partnership with Black Mamas ATX. Black Breastfeeding Week is August 25 – 31.

When we talk about disparities in breastfeeding rates between Black moms and white moms, we also learn about the challenges that befall many Black women when it comes to breastfeeding: lack of knowledge or education about the benefits of breast milk, unexpected complications latching or nursing, inadequate maternity leave before returning to work or inadequate time and space to pump once the mom has returned to work.

The solutions to these problems often involve increased support for Black moms. But what does that support look like? We spoke to Aphrica Farrow, a DONA-certified doula with Black Mamas ATX, about not just the challenges Black women face with breastfeeding, but also the methods of support she and her team provide to achieve a 100% breastfeeding initiation success rate among their moms.

The problem: Lack of education and knowledge about the benefits of breastfeeding

Farrow, a mom of four children ranging from ages 21 to 7, admits that the main reason she decided to breastfeed her first child was because she knew that she herself was breastfed. However, she recalls that there was less emphasis placed on the importance of breastfeeding and the benefits it holds for mom and baby. Additionally, moms who come from families that don’t breastfeed are less likely to breastfeed. “If you don’t see other people doing it, you’re less likely to do it,” says Farrow.

A solution: More education in the prenatal period

Educating moms in the prenatal period can have a positive effect on their decision to breastfeed once the baby is born. Farrow and her team visit with their clients during pregnancy, providing them with knowledge and support about breastfeeding. They discuss how the mom feels about it, what challenges or concerns she anticipates, and where they can find extra help if they need it, such as WIC. This support provided in the prenatal period has helped Black Mamas ATX achieve a 100% breastfeeding initiation success rate with the moms they serve.

The problem: Negative cultural influences affecting Black women

Negative cultural influences affect breastfeeding for Black moms in ways that many white medical and lactation professionals may not be aware of. But this knowledge is key in supporting Black moms in their breastfeeding journey. “There are so many generational traumas that black women have gone through up until this point,” says Farrow, referring to the tradition of slaves serving as wet nurses for their owner’s babies, while their own babies went hungry; female slaves being used for gynecological experiments because it was assumed that Black people were impervious to pain; and the oversexualization of Black women and girls (also called adultification bias).

A solution: More Black lactation professionals and an increase of knowledge and understanding by white LCs

Black women need to know that the medical and lactation professionals helping them are aware of the cultural and generational issues Black women face today, even those that stem from hundreds of years ago.

Having access to Black lactation consultants helps put Black women at ease. Farrow says a Black lactation consultant is more likely to understand the mom’s stresses at home, her difficulties nursing, and the history and generational trauma surrounding Black women’s bodies. “Just seeing a Black lactation consultant, your guard is down,” she adds.

Lactation care does not have to be segregated. White lactation consultants can definitely build relationships with their Black clients, but they must research and make an attempt understand where the Black mom is coming from. Building trust is an important part of the relationship between a lactation consultant and a breastfeeding mom. “You have to feel like they are here for you, not just doing their job,” says Farrow. Frequent visits to address issues, taking an interest in the mom, and building a relationship are all things that white lactation consultants need to do to ensure they are providing effective care to both their white and their Black clients.

The problem: Inadequate follow up care, inadequate maternity leave, lack of support among family and peers

Black moms who fall in lower income positions have less time off for maternity care and fewer accommodations in the workplace, such as breaks for pumping and a space to pump and store milk. She may be in single parent household, with no spousal support, emotionally or financially. She may not have adequate support from friends or family who value breastfeeding.

A solution: Extensive follow-up care and peer support

Farrow recalls the history of Black midwifery, in which midwives helped deliver the baby, helped with breastfeeding, and remained a resource for the family. “They were counselors. They were everything to the family. They stayed around and helped the mother heal, breastfeed, parent – all the things you needed, and you began to have a relationship with that person – you built a bond.” Unfortunately this kind of care is not as common in the U.S.

This is the the type of care Farrow and her fellow doulas at Black Mamas ATX strive to provide. The doulas are there during the delivery and during the “golden hour,” the first 60 minutes after the baby is born, to put baby to breast. They help with latching, any issues that may arise, and show moms how to hand massage to stimulate milk production. Farrow checks in with her clients daily for the first week or so, then weekly for the first six weeks (these visits are usually in the home, but have transitioned to online due to COVID-19). Depending on the mom’s current support system, visits continue bi-weekly up to three months, then once per month for the remainder of the first year.

Farrow says that more Black woman are breastfeeding, and she credits an increase in social groups and peer support specifically for Black women – like Black Mamas ATX – which are especially helpful for those who lack family or spousal support or breastfeeding role models in their own social networks, or those who may face negative perceptions of breastfeeding among their peers.

How Black moms can advocate for themselves

When it comes to their medical, postnatal, and lactation care, Black moms are strong advocates for themselves and their peers. “You know your body better than anyone,” says Farrow. “If you feel that something isn’t right, you have the right to get a second opinion.”  Farrow also recommends and encourages seeking support from family, friends or outside support groups, such as those available at Black Mamas ATX.