Black Breastfeeding Week Celebrations Highlight the Need for Change
Valentina Attanasio, BT Associate Editor
August is a very important month of celebration for breastfeeding families, from the very first day with World Breastfeeding Week commencing until the last day of the month. Many of you have heard something on the news about World Breastfeeding Week happening in August, but how many people know about Black Breastfeeding Week—celebrated in several countries during the last week of August? And why is this celebration so important?
Black Breastfeeding Week:
Then and now
Black Breastfeeding Week (BBW) was launched over seven years ago in the United States and the event was originally only celebrated in the U.S. But in recent years, Great Britain and other countries have also joined in the cause. Raising awareness of disparities in black mothers’ breastfeeding rates compared to other groups, and possible remedies for these disparities, is what this week is all about. This year, more than 160 events were held—a public demonstration of commitment and solidarity with black parents everywhere. Numerous organizations, health centers and businesses contributed to the celebration, with moments of education and support.
Many news outlets, as well as families in attendance, reflected on the impact of the days of slavery when black mothers in the United States were forced to nurse white slave owners’ babies. Many black mothers shared that this aspect of history caused them to think of breastfeeding in a bad light.
Lack of adequate and culturally relevant support, along with fewer opportunities for higher education opportunities due to the socioeconomic status of many black families, have only made matters worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of all ethnic groups, black women in the U.S. have the lowest breastfeeding initiation rates at 64%, and the shortest breastfeeding duration (only 14% babies are breastfed at 6 months of age).
Infant formula companies have also played a key role in fueling this disparity. Since the 1970s, massive marketing campaigns run by infant formula companies have created the idea that formula is a product for sophisticated people, while breastfeeding is a practice belonging to a different class. This messaging had a huge echo for a long time in most minority groups. Still today, black women use formula at higher rates, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
So the past continues to haunt us in the present. According to BlackBreastfeedingWeek.org, the infant mortality rate for black babies is double (and in some place, nearly triple) that of white babies, due to premature birth, low birth weight, and sicknesses related to too-early births. Also, many studies show that black mothers generally breastfeed less and for a shorter time than white mothers. The causes of low breastfeeding rates and high infant mortality among the black population in the USA are certainly complex and stem from systemic racial inequities. Nevertheless, in the present time, culturally-relevant lactation support, both during the first few days and in later months, can certainly make a huge difference.
In the United Kingdom, mortality rates are sadly similar. As in the United States, a history of breastfeeding trauma has passed from generation to generation within the black community and it still hinders breastfeeding nowadays. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2013, black babies had the highest infant mortality rates, 6.3 deaths per 1,000 live births compared to other ethnic groups. Moreover, black babies had the highest infant mortality rate for low birthweight births, at 54.1 deaths per 1,000 live births. However, contrary to expectations, the United Kingdom Health and Social Care Information Centre, Infant Feeding Survey 2010, highlighted that black mothers were significantly more likely to breastfeed than white mothers, with a breastfeeding initiation rate of 95%. Also notable was the low fall-out rate– 85% of black mothers were still breastfeeding at six weeks and 73% were still breastfeeding at four months.
It’s not easy to determine the reasons behind higher breastfeeding rates in the United Kingdom versus the United States. A possible explanation could be attributed to the persistence of strong cultural roots versus the degree of integration within a community other than the one of origin. This highlights how important the relationship of a particular ethnic group with the society in which it lives is.
What can be done?
To be a part of the solution, we need to work together “to address barriers experienced disproportionately by black mothers, including earlier return to work, inadequate receipt of breastfeeding information from providers, and lack of access to professional breastfeeding support.” as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.
Most people know that breastmilk is beneficial in preventing many health issues later on in life. But what many of us may not be aware of is that breastfeeding can actually save black babies’ lives by decreasing infant mortality rates by as much as 50%. That’s according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
We know that families are more successful at reaching their human milk feeding goals if they are surrounded by lactation support that is culturally relevant to them. In fact, Black Breastfeeding Week was created to respond to this need and to increase knowledge of correct and evidence-based information, inside and outside the black community.
As this year’s Black Breastfeeding Week theme conveyed, “The World is Yours: Imagine, Innovate, Liberate!” Let’s be creative and bold in the ways we stand with black mothers around the world, so they do not feel isolated. Let’s continue to fight for racial equality on all fronts. Reducing racist treatment in any area of life affects health outcomes for babies and their families. No less important, so they know they have everything their babies need to help them thrive, just like any parent would want to feel.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Racial and Geographic Differences in Breastfeeding — United States, 2011–2015, Weekly / July 14, 2017 / 66(27);723–727; https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6627a3.htm
2. Katherine M. Jones, Michael L. Power, John T. Queenan, and Jay Schulkin. Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Breastfeeding, Breastfeed Med. 2015 May 1; 10(4): 186–196, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4410446/
3. BlackBreastfeedingWeek.com, http://blackbreastfeedingweek.org/why-we-need-black-breastfeeding-week/
4. Office of National Statistics. Pregnancy and ethnic factors influencing births and infant mortality: 2013, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/causesofdeath/bulletins/pregnancyandethnicfactorsinfluencingbirthsandinfantmortality/2015-10-14
5. Health and Social Care Information Centre, IFF Research. Infant Feeding Survey 2010, https://sp.ukdataservice.ac.uk/doc/7281/mrdoc/pdf/7281_ifs-uk-2010_report.pdf
6. Childofourtimeblog.org.uk, http://childofourtimeblog.org.uk/2015/04/breastfeeding-and-ethnicity/