Breastfeeding in African American Communities

By Rachel Walden — April 6, 2012

Shafia Monroe of the International Center for Traditional Childbearing was recently interviewed for a nice piece in The Skanner on the topic of Breastfeeding: A Wellness Issue for African American Families. Currently, black women start and continue breastfeeding at at much lower rates than other measured races/ethnicities. According to the CDC, rates are:

Breastfeeds Intitially Still Breastfeeding at 6 months Still Breastfeeding at 1 Year
American Indian/Alaska Native 69.8% 37.1% 19.4%
Asian or Pacific Islander 80.9% 52.4% 29.7%
Black (non-Hispanic) 54.4% 26.6% 11.7%
Hispanic 80.4% 45.1% 24.0%
White (non-Hispanic) 74.3% 43.2% 21.4%

In the interview, Monroe talks about health benefits of breastfeeding, notes the lower breastfeeding rates among black women, and encourages black women to breastfeed for a year or longer. She says:

…we only hear people telling black women to get a mammogram—I’ve never heard anyone tell black women that if you breastfeed for one year it can reduce your breast cancer risk. So that’s important…

By breastfeeding, it delays your onset of Type 2 diabetes. This can be major, when you have a high diabetic rate within the black community in Portland, and more black women dying from late-stage breast cancer.

Monroe goes on to note that breastfeeding needs to be made “more acceptable in the normal life of African American families, so they feel there’s no shame that comes from doing it. And that the black community should embrace women who breastfeed and make them feel comfortable in all areas.”

The question of why more black women don’t breastfeed is an important one. The CDC identifies a number of potential factors, including “social and cultural norms, social support, guidance and support from health-care providers, work environment, and the media.” Christine talked about the need for support at work and among friends and family members in a previous post as well. Kimberly Seals Allers at BlackandMarriedWithKids asks, Is Slavery Behind Our Low Breastfeeding Rates?, exploring the ways women in slavery in the U.S. were forced to stop own breastfeeding infants and forced to breastfeed white infants.

A couple of online resources are intended to support black women in breastfeeding. One is Black Breastfeeding 360, which has tips, information, and women’s stories about breastfeeding. Another is the Black Women Do Breastfeed blog and Facebook page, which also feature black women’s stories of breastfeeding, including how they overcame challenges they faced after choosing to breastfeed their children. Finally, the federal Office on Women’s Health has a PDF guide, Your Guide to Breastfeeding for African American Women, which teaches about the importance of breastfeeding, how to do it, and how to handle some common challenges.

Relatedly, Kimberly Seals Allers (of Black Breastfeeding 360) has a great piece on media and other coverage issues around this topic, in Dear White Women: Beyonce is OUR Breastfeeding Moment. Please Step Aside. She writes:

…with all the news reports about Beyonce, and all the breastfeeding “advocates” talking about its impact on the nursing world, not one advocate mentioned the particular significance to black women — which is so striking since many claim to be interested in our breastfeeding plight.

Shame on you…some of you white breastfeeding advocates, one of you, should have pointed that out. If not for us then please for our babies. Black babies are still 2.4 times more likely to die before their first birthday and the CDC says increased breastfeeding among black women could reduce this needless disparity by as much as 50%.

Having Beyonce as our black breastfeeding moment potentially means that more African American women will know that breastfeeding is mainstream and beautiful and actively practiced by the celebrities we admire. The celebrities from our community. It means that more black women, particularly young women, may consider breastfeeding their babies–something our community urgently needs.

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