in partnership with Mama Sana Vibrant Woman
An important key to breastfeeding success for Black women is education and support, particularly in the prenatal period. Waiting until a problem or challenge arises to figure out what to do only increases a mom’s chance of giving up. Setting expectations and preparing moms for the road ahead helps increase breastfeeding initiation rates and the chances that a mom will continue to breastfeed even when challenges occur.
We spoke with Jelisa Fields, a doula at Your Journey with J and volunteer with Mama Sana Vibrant Woman, an Austin-based organization that facilitates access to culturally appropriate and quality prenatal and postnatal care in Austin, TX.
How does prenatal breastfeeding support differ between Black moms and white moms?
Cultural and historical differences
Culturally and historically, breastfeeding has a different connotation for Black moms than it does for white moms. Decades of generational trauma have resulted in negative stigmas surrounding breastfeeding. Fields recalls that slaves who served as wet nurses were ingrained with the idea of “you’re good enough to nurse my child, but not good enough to be in my home.” Additionally, when formula was introduced, it was quite expensive and seen as a feeding option for elites. Breastfeeding became seen as a less desirable option. For generations, these events have caused a negative association with breastfeeding within Black communities.
Recommended reading: How Black Women Were ‘Skimmed” By Infant Formula Marketing
Lack of representation
In addition, Fields points out that there is a lack of representation in breastfeeding materials and educators. Educational materials made available to Black moms are not often created by Black lactation consultants and often don’t depict people of color. “Black women tend to have breast differences that resources [featuring white women] may not address,” says Fields. She adds that not seeing themselves and their unique situation in educational materials and resources can cause lack of confidence in Black moms, which then can lead to frustration and the desire to stop breastfeeding.
Addressing concerns and myths about breastfeeding
In her work as a doula, Fields starts with an inquiry-based approach as early as the second trimester, asking pregnant moms what they know about breastfeeding, what they are excited about, and what they may be skeptical about.
Knowing what a mom may be scared or skeptical of helps Fields provide the resources and education that the mom can connect with. Fields says there is a difference between setting realistic expectations when it comes to discomfort and causing fear of pain. “I may share that breastfeeding should not be painful or cause bleeding,” she says. “But there’s a difference between discomfort and pain.”
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Common breastfeeding myths
When breastfeeding isn’t talked about in families or peer groups as a normal, healthy way to feed your baby, it’s easy for certain myths and inaccurate information to circulate.
Myth: Breastfeeding is all or nothing
Fields says it’s important to alleviate the pressure moms feel around breastfeeding. Breastfeeding can mean exclusively nursing, it can mean exclusively pumping, or it can be a mixture of both. Fields and Mama Sana Vibrant Woman support all forms of bodyfeeding, including chestfeeding, breastfeeding, donor milk, exclusive pumping, and more.
Myth: Breastfeeding moms need a freezer full of milk
The added pressure to stock up milk, especially for moms returning to work, can create anxiety around breastfeeding that can have negative effects on the mom’s mental health and on her milk supply. Fields recommends having a few day’s worth of milk on hand and to continue pumping regularly while away from baby to ensure their milk supply stays replenished.
Myth: Breastfeeding should come naturally
While breastfeeding is a completely natural way to feed your baby, it doesn’t always feel like it comes naturally. “There’s a learning curve,” says Fields. “It’s not always going to be easy, and there may be some discomfort.” When moms run into breastfeeding difficulties in the moment, they can feel stuck and want to give up. Fields prepares moms for difficulties that may arise by discussing expectations and solutions, such as various holds to try, encouraging moms to do what feels right for her and her baby.
Finding Support and Advocating for Yourself and Your Breastfeeding Goals
Fields recalls that while she did witness breastfeeding in her family, moms generally stopped around six weeks, when they had to return to work. When Fields had her own child, she was determined to breastfeed for a year, so she armed herself with information to help her reach her goal and counteract well-meaning family members who suggested she move to formula.
Educate family members and loved ones
Fields says family members and peers may harbor negative ideas about breastfeeding that stem from decades of generational trauma. Unlearning these negative ideas can help them support a mom with her breastfeeding goals. “Sometimes family is unsupportive because they just don’t know,” she says. “Be clear about the nutritional value and have the information to back that up. Educate the family so they can unlearn mentalities based in self preservation and learn facts about the benefits of breastfeeding. With each generation we learn more and do more.”
Create a birth plan
Fields explains that plans are essential for Black moms due to instances of medical coercion that happen in birthing spaces. But having a plan and a doula to help advocate for you can minimize birth trauma, which also affects your ability to breastfeed.
A birth plan may include:
- Taking part in immediate skin to skin care after the birth
- Latching right away to help with colostrum production
- Clear directions for medical and nursery staff on your breastfeeding goals. Be very clear if you do not want the baby to receive sugar water or formula
- Be aware that a c-section may affect the initial skin-to-skin are, breastfeeding and latch
Fields also recommends moms are prepared with a list of people, organizations and resources, who can help when difficulties arise. That list may include:
- Lactation consultant
- Postpartum doula
- Online support groups
- Peer support
- Friends/family willing to help with meals. Nutrition is an important part of being able to feed!
Keep contact information for your insurance company or WIC handy, as they can often provide many resources such as supplies or even lactation consultant visits.
Find a support system
If a mom is unable to find breastfeeding role models within her circle of family or friends, there are many other support networks available via private Facebook groups, local peer support networks, and social media. Fields says Instagram is a great place for Black moms to find positive breastfeeding role models that are transparent and honest about their experiences. (You can find her on Instagram at @YourJourneywithJ.)
About Jelisa Fields
Jelisa Fields is a doula at Your Journey with J and a volunteer with Mama Sana Vibrant Woman. Her training with Re+Birth Equity, Birthing Advocacy, and DONA International, plus years of working with families in various capacities and her own personal lived experiences allow her to provide comprehensive and culturally inclusive support. In addition to her work as a doula, Jelisa is a programming and community engagement volunteer with Mama Sana Vibrant Woman, a Prenatal PIP squeaks facilitator with Partners in Parenting, and a member of the Sueños Sin Fronteras Birth Network, National Black Doula Association, and Austin Wellness Collaborative.
About Mama Sana Vibrant Woman
Mama Sana Vibrant Woman is an Austin-based organization that facilitates culturally appropriate and quality prenatal and postnatal care through pregnancy and birth circles, childbirth prep workshops, wellness clinics, and birth companion programs.