For many, breastfeeding isn’t easy. Those who want to do it usually require support, understanding and education. If you were able to find those things and nursing went well for you, have you ever considered whether that might be partially thanks to the colour of your skin? The fact is, there’s wide racial disparity in the rates of people starting and sticking with breastfeeding, and that’s not OK—which is why Black Breastfeeding Week was created. (This year, it’s August 25 to 31.)
Eden Hagos is a Toronto-based public health promoter with a focus on maternal health through an anti-racist, intersectional approach. Her academic work and advocacy is guided by her experience as a Black mother of three, soon to be four, who has been breastfeeding for over six years. We asked Hagos why breastfeeding advocacy is so white, what that means for Black people, and how Black Breastfeeding Week helps.
What are the particular challenges of being Black and breastfeeding?
There are many factors that make breastfeeding challenging for Black folks. The following is neither an exhaustive list, nor are the factors true for all individuals.
To begin with, the historical oppression of enslaved Black women as wet nurses throughout North America continues to impact the way that breastfeeding is viewed in some Black communities, and thus may result in less social support for breastfeeding parents, and increased stigma towards breastfeeding or full-term breastfeeding.
One of the most significant factors of course is the institutional racism that Black birthing people experience. During pregnancy and labour, Black birthing folks face higher chances of experiencing obstetric violence. Immediately postpartum, when breastfeeding support is most critical, Black parents are less likely to be offered support from a lactation consultant and are more likely to experience pressure by health-care providers to formula feed. All of these can discourage breastfeeding and decrease success rates with establishing breastfeeding.
There’s a perception that Black women don’t or won’t breastfeed. Why do you think this is?
I think the only real explanation for that perception is racism. The truth is that Black Canadians are more likely to initiate breastfeeding than any other race. The evidence shows that nine out of 10 Black birthing parents initiate breastfeeding.
However, in the general Canadian population, including Black Canadians and all other races, fewer than one in four babies is exclusively breastfed to the recommended age of 6 months. This points to a need for more support for breastfeeding folks, because as we know, community support, employment equity and good maternity leave policies all increase rates of exclusive, full-term breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding advocacy is white-female led, and the lactation field is overwhelmingly white. Why is this a problem?
The over-representation of straight, cis, white women in this field, as in any other, is exclusionary. Black parents deserve to be supported by other Black parents. When I was a new mom, I joined a number of parenting groups where my infant and I were the only Black members and I always felt uncomfortable. I was fortunate because I finally found a La Leche League that had a Black peer supporter who invited me to my first meeting, and I have since introduced her to other Black moms. She, along with the other parents, have helped me through so many breastfeeding challenges throughout the last four years, and I believe all Black parents deserve to find culturally appropriate support from other Black folks.
The Black community is resilient and culturally diverse, and this diversity is often not reflected among breastfeeding advocacy, nor among breastfeeding professionals such as lactation consultants. This lack of representation is problematic because it continues to perpetuate the myth that Black folks don’t breastfeed. Additionally, the lack of Black lactation consultants means Black parents are less likely to receive care that centres their culture. And finally, anti-Black racism from lactation consultants of other races could result in worse care for Black folks.
Why is Black Breastfeeding Week important?
Black Breastfeeding Week is important because it encourages breastfeeding among Black parents, and it also celebrates it! The week sees social media flooded with stories and images of Black experiences of breastfeeding. It also centres the work of Black folks, including birth workers, lactation consultants, parents and breastfeeding advocates.
The reason that I am participating in Black Breastfeeding Week is the same reason that I share photos of my children breastfeeding on my social media. As a veteran Black mom who has breastfed three children, breastfed through numerous pregnancies, tandem nursed toddlers and newborns, and breastfed a child with food allergies, I choose to share my experiences to encourage others, and to show that while breastfeeding is not easy, it can be a rewarding experience.
Black Breastfeeding Week, which is international, highlights events across Canada and the US that centre and celebrate the experiences of Black folks. It also provides community grants for those who wish to host events, and this year there are numerous online events every day up until August 31. Visit blackbreastfeedingweek.org more information, including resources for Black folks seeking information and support about breastfeeding.
Follow Eden Hagos on Facebook or IG @Blacktivistmommy
This article was originally published online in August 2020.