Kimberly: When It Comes To Breastfeeding, Do Black Men Have Our Backs?
Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, author and a leading voice of the Black motherhood experience. She is a 2011 IATP Food & Community Fellow working to improve maternal and infant health through increased breastfeeding rates in the African American community and to integrate the "first food" -- breastmilk into the broader food movement.
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Over the past decade, as I’ve worked as a journalist, commentator and consultant on the African American motherhood experience, I became deeply frustrated by the lack of credible information as to why African American women have had significantly lower breastfeeding initiation rates for over 40 years.
And when it comes to the gold standard of infant nutrition -- six months of exclusive breastfeeding – among black women in America, the rate is only 20% compared to 40% among whites.
The impact of fewer breastfed babies in the black community cannot be ignored—the rates of asthma, respiratory infections and childhood obesity are skyrocketing among our infants and children—and studies prove that exclusive breastfeeding reduces the risk of these diseases. Even worse, black babies are dying at 2.4 times the rate of white infants—a sobering disparity that the CDC says could be reduced by at least 50% simply by more breastfeeding among black women.9:00am on Thursday March 15
As a mother of two, I’m just loving the food revolution in America—a grassroots effort to make food healthier and more accessible to all. I’m a huge fan of efforts like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, Farm to School programs, and amazing organizations like Food Corps, that work tirelessly to affect what our children eat at school and teach them to love healthy food for life.
But is school age too late? And what about the “first food”—breast milk? I’m concerned that the food system conversation in the U.S. neglects to get to the root of the matter by including the “first food” and fails to emphasize the critical importance of breastfeeding as we try to build a healthier generation of children. The truth is, no conversation about equitable food systems for all can truly exist without including the first food and understanding how the racial and social inequities around breastfeeding adversely affect vulnerable populations.
If access to healthy food is a basic human right then doesn’t that right start at birth? Shouldn’t our smallest and most vulnerable citizens have fair and just access to the healthiest food for them?
If so, then we need to start asking why more mothers aren’t accessing the first food for longer periods or at all. Consider the facts: Our unimpressive breastfeeding rates across racial lines show the full picture. In the United States, only about 13 percent of babies are exclusively breastfed for six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based in Atlanta. Meanwhile in South Asia, 44 percent of babies are exclusively breastfed for six months, according to UNICEF.
The situation among African American women is even more severe. For the past 30 years, breastfeeding rates among black women, particularly those in underserved, food desert communities, have been significantly lower than all other ethnicities. Meanwhile, in the U.S., African American infants are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday than other infants. In some cities, the stats are even more sobering: Memphis, Tennessee ranks at the top of the list for infant deaths in American cities—where a baby dies every 43 hours.
A recent study [NS1] concluded that increasing breastfeeding rates alone could help close this racial gap across the board. The many health benefits of breastfeeding, including an improved immune system and fewer ear and respiratory infections would address some of the leading causes of infant death in low-income communities.
For children of all hues, a greater engagement of breastfeeding could lead to a healthier generation of youngsters. After all, several studies, including one by researchers at the University of Copenhagen show that breastfed infants are more likely to try new foods later in life. Because breast milk contains flavors from foods eaten by mothers, breastfed infants are exposed to a variety of tastes early in life. In contrast, artificial baby milk (formula) always tastes the same. These nuances are simple yet powerful steps that can lead to a greater likelihood for more varied and healthier food choices as an older child.
Given these sobering facts, it is hard to argue against the fact that by removing the barriers to access to the first food we can have a tremendous impact on infant nutrition and maternal health. That includes breaking down racial barriers and but also creating an honest conversation about the external forces that influence a woman’s decision to breastfeed or not. And it is equally hard to understand why the so-called food revolution forgets about infants.
Instead, far too many babies are born into “first food” deserts, communities with limited breastfeeding resources and support. The reasons why more African American women aren’t relying on the first food for their newborns are a multifaceted mosaic—ripe with political nuances, deep racial undertones, social taboos, and complex cultural subtleties—similar to many other areas of the food systems work.
Some of the barriers may be related to historical trauma. During slavery, slave owners used and purchased black women as wet nurses for their own children, often forcing these mothers to stop nursing their own infants to care for others.
“On the one hand, wet nursing claimed the benefits of breastfeeding for the offspring of white masters while denying or limiting those health advantages to slave infants. On the other hand, wet nursing required slave mothers to transfer to white offspring the nurturing and affection they should have been able to allocate to their own children,” writes historian Wilma A. Dunaway, in the book The African American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. And since breastfeeding reduces fertility, slave owners forced black women to stop breastfeeding early so that they could continue breeding, often to the health detriment of their own infants, Dunaway writes.
Although African American women had a stunted and complex breastfeeding experience at the hands of slave owners hundreds of years ago, that may still linger culturally today. Perhaps an unconscious legacy of thinking that breastfeeding is something we did for others and not for ourselves.
Then there’s something I call the National Geographic factor—that is, most of the images we see of black women breastfeeding are semi-naked women in Africa whose lives seem so far away from our modern, African American lifestyle and experience.
A lack of culturally competent breastfeeding resources in our communities also play a part.
Whatever the root causes, the correlative impact is clear: A woman is more likely to eat nutritious food when breastfeeding. Conversely, when a woman lives in a food desert and knows her diet is not and cannot easily be healthy, nutritious and affordable, she is less likely to breastfeed.
Our destinies are inextricably linked.
By breaking downs the racial and social barriers to the first food, we can give more infants a healthier and more equitable start in life; make the first food, fair food and improve the health of their mothers, too.
In the broader community, the conversation must include existential matters like how connected women are to the experience and how breastfeeding works in the actual context of our lives. We need to address and name the psychological, sociological, economic, political and cultural forces that are undermining our breastfeeding experience, from the back door deals between hospitals and pharmaceutical companies to the loneliness and frustration that can also be a part of the breastfeeding experience.
We need to understand how breastfeeding, which should be one of the most nurturing experiences for a mother, became “angrified” and how these invisible yet insidious factors are creating a muddled environment where mothers are not fully accessing the best nutrition for their infant.
Removing the barriers of access and creating a new, honest conversation around the first food is the only way to build a nation of healthier children from the start. And only that would be a true food revolution.6:22am on Friday September 23
I am pleased to present an extremely important guest post by our good friend Kimberly Seals Allers, author of The Mocha Manual™ series of books and founder of www.MochaManual.com. She also serves as an advisory board member of the Bravado Breastfeeding Information Council.
At Bravado, we are very aware of the importance of a father's support in the success of breastfeeding but Kimberly's article today touches on a compounding challenge to breastfeeding -- lack of experience and support of nursing in the black community.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Nick Cannon the comedian or Nick Cannon the actor. But Nick Cannon the Dad, I’m really starting to like. He recently scored super brownie points with me, when he came out in defense of accusations that Mariah was abusing alcohol while breastfeeding. Someone at the hospital even called child protective services. Turns out, as Nick explained, one of the nurses suggested a few sips of Guinness might help the milk come in a bit faster and when Mariah tried it, well… the rest is tabloid history.
The pitfalls of celebrity motherhood aside, women in general, and women of color in particular face all sorts of obstacles in their choices around breastfeeding, and adding fear of a CPS visit doesn’t help. More importantly, support from our men is critical. Our community is based on kinship, and black women are greatly influenced by their peers, which includes a husband, boyfriend, grandmother, friend or other relative.
A study by the Bravado Breastfeeding Information Council shows that women in general are more likely to breastfeed if the man in our life supports it.
When asked to choose the person who had the most important influence in her life as a nursing mom, almost three times as many women selected their partner (54%) over their mothers (21%), even if their mother had breastfeeding experience.
Approximately 70% of mothers said their partner’s support is extremely important to their overall confidence as a new mom, and their overall well-being as a nursing mother.
This is particularly true in the black community, where we are more likely to be first-generation breastfeeders and not have the deep support from our own mothers and grandmothers. That’s when it’s even more important that our men step up to the plate.
In my work advocating for more and longer breastfeeding among African American women, I’ve heard all sorts of things from women about why they don’t breastfeed, but the most striking are those about their men and their discomfort about breastfeeding. Men who thought breastfeeding was “nasty” or couldn’t separate the sexual nature of the breast with its actual feeding purpose.
Whatever the reasons, the truth is: men matter.
There’s a lot of education that needs to be done with black men on the benefits of breastfeeding and learning how to be supportive. There’s a big difference between a man who agrees that his partner should breastfeed and one that actually creates an environment for her success.
But that’s what every woman of color deserves. That’s what our newborns need and deserve for their optimal health. And that’s my goal for all black fathers -- celebrity or not.
10:11am on Friday June 10