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August is World Breastfeeding Month – a great opportunity to talk about breastfeeding! The decision to breastfeed a baby is not simply a personal choice. Rather it is a decision, whether we know it or not, influenced by our friends, families, partners, communities, jobs, beliefs, and understanding. If a woman has a lot of exposure to breastfeeding within her community, breastfeeding is seen as the “norm” or accepted choice. However, if she never sees anyone who looks like her breastfeed, or only hears bad stories about it, or does not receive positive messages from family, friends, and the outside world encouraging her to breastfeed, the chances are that she won’t.
In America, not all racial groups experience the same levels of health as others. For example, Black people experience more serious illness throughout their lifetimes than do White people. This is called “health disparity” or a health difference between racial groups. This disparity or difference is also seen in breastfeeding. Black women are less likely to breastfeed their babies when compared to other racial groups, and far less likely compared to White women. So why is that?
The reasons for this are many. As described earlier, a woman’s decision to breastfeed stems from social messages and norms, personal beliefs, finances, and support. Support is a very important factor and does not only include the help and encouragement one gets from family and friends but also the support of employers, child-care facilities, and other organizations like hospitals, health centers, and health care providers, as well as government policies. It is thought that Black women are not getting the same messages or support around breastfeeding as other women. Therefore, to raise breastfeeding rates and close the breastfeeding gap, as a society we need to make sure that all women and especially Black women receive the needed support and positive messages to enable successful breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding provides health benefits to mom and baby that extend way beyond the time the baby is breastfed. Depending on the amount of breastmilk and length of time given, the health benefits of breastfeeding can extend far into adulthood. Therefore, breastmilk is an important factor that affects not only the health of the individual but of the entire community. Healthy individuals create a healthy population. And having more Black infants get the essential nutrients that only breastmilk can provide may be especially powerful for the health of the Black community.
At Ryan Health | WIC, we understand and are working to address the barriers and challenges all women face when it comes to breastfeeding. Our walls are filled with pictures of women from different cultures and colors breastfeeding their babies allowing each us to see ourselves in these photos. Our Breastfeeding Peer Counselors are from the communities we serve and connect to participants by sharing their experiences and providing resources to first-time and experienced moms alike. Having open conversations about the barriers Black women face regarding breastfeeding is essential to effecting change.
Last year as part of World Breastfeeding Week celebration, we hosted a showing of a documentary called Chocolate Milk that explores breastfeeding in the Black community. Finding a role model, someone you identify with can make all the difference in deciding to breastfeed or not. We offer groups that bring women from all stages of motherhood together to talk, learn, share, and support one another. And while no one thing alone is likely to improve breastfeeding rates for Black women, being aware that differences exist, exposing them, and working to tackle the issues will.
Helene Rosenhouse-Romeo, RD, CDN, CLC, MPH