Cultural Support Needed for Women Who Breastfeed, Plus a Pitchman for Breast Milk

July 24, 2008

Aisha Qaasim, a civil rights attorney, often advocates on behalf of others.

Today, in an essay published at Women’s eNews, Qaasim takes on the insults hurled at women who breastfeed in public and argues that the negativity surrounding breastfeeding is hurting the health of children and mothers, particularly in African-American families, where the rate of breastfeeding is the lowest.

Women who breastfeed lower their risk of developing uterine cancer, osteoporosis, Type 2 diabetes and breast cancer over their lifetimes.

But the irony is that in today’s ambitious parenting climate — where millions of dollars are being spent on educational toys and organic baby products — breastfeeding as the most important developmental head-start is often neglected.

Among African American women that’s particularly true. In 2004, 74 percent of U.S. women initiated breastfeeding soon after giving birth. Among black women it was 60 percent.

By the time infants reached 6 months of age — a key health target — only 14 percent of U.S. infants were breastfed exclusively. Among black infants it was 7 percent.

Only 36 percent of U.S. babies received breast milk in combination with formula or other foods at 6 months of age. For African American babies make that 29 percent.

Black women are the least likely to breastfeed, even those of us with a college education, health insurance and a nice paying job. African American women across the spectrum breastfeed less than women who have only a high school education, less than women who live below the poverty line and less than adolescent mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control 2004 National Immunization Survey.

It’s not an abstract issue for Qaasim. As a black women, she has weathered overtly racist insults, much of which she could brush off. But Qaasim couldn’t shake a comment she heard while breastfeeding her 2-month-old daughter at a suburban Maryland mall.

“That is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen,” the woman said.

“A nameless woman at a mall was somehow the one to find the insult that I could not toss onto the neat pile of words that would never hurt me. It did hurt. And, these attitudes toward breastfeeding are making our children sick, especially African American children, who are the least likely to get the benefit of mothers’ milk,” writes Qaasim.

And when she complained about the ridicule — which she said almost always came from other women — friends and family didn’t offer much support.

The response is not uncommon. Among the many public obstacles women face with regard to breastfeeding — including a lack of privacy and time to pump breast milk at work and a lack of knowledge concerning laws in most states granting mothers the right to breastfeed in public spaces — discouragement from friends and family is also a major deterrent.

A recently published study of 88 new or soon-to-be mothers, mostly Hispanic and African-American, found that the opinions of family and friends are the most significant factor in determining whether low-income mothers breastfeed their children. The study, titled “Breast-feeding Intentions Among Low-Income Pregnant and Lactating Women,” appeared in the March-April 2008 issue of The American Journal of Health Behavior.

Interestingly, researchers found no statistical relationship between positive attitudes held by pregnant women concerning breastfeeding and their intent to breastfeed. The views of family members closest to them mattered the most. The researchers concluded that education about breastfeeding include the “opinion-shapers” as well as pregnant women.

“In the study, women were most significantly influenced by what they perceived to be the opinions of people close to them such as their husband or partner, siblings, friends and parents,” said Gina Jarman Hill, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Texas Christian University. “Husbands or partners were the most influential.”

Henry Hale gets it. The 25-year-old African-American father of a 3-year-old daughter named Miracle is the first male certified breast-feeding peer counselor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He may even be the first in Illinois (or anywhere?).

“No one knows for sure, because calls to organizations that track this type of thing are met with befuddled silence,” writes Bonnie Miller Rubin in the Chicago Tribune. A photo of Hale is on the Trib’s front page today.

His interest in lactation began after the birth of his now 3-year-old daughter, Miracle, who was born at 24 weeks, weighing only 1 pound, 3 ounces. Hale and Miracle’s mother, Jackie Scott, attended Mother’s Milk Club, a weekly support group for parents of babies in the neonatal intensive-care unit, and learned about the health health benefits of breast feeding.

Although dads may make occasional appearances, Hale never missed a meeting, said Paula Meier, Rush’s director for clinical research and lactation.

“A lot of dads find it repulsive,” she said. “But Henry was just so outspoken and inspiring.”

That’s when Meier had a lightbulb moment: She’d recruit Hale to extol the virtues of breast-feeding — especially to the African-American community, which traditionally nurses at lower rates than other groups. […]

“When I heard all the good things about breast milk,” Hale said, “my first thought was, ‘C’mon, let’s get it out. Let’s get going.’ ”

So Scott started pumping. For the first seven months, Miracle consumed nothing else.

“At the beginning, it was really hard,” Scott said to the group, which meets weekly to discuss every aspect of lactation, from inadequate milk supply to how nipple-piercing affects the process. “There were a couple of days when I just wanted to stop. But Henry really helped.”

How Hale assisted isn’t immediately clear given the basic anatomy involved. However, he picks up the thread of the discussion smoothly, explaining how he’d bring the pump to Scott at all hours and wash the equipment when she was done.

“It’s about focusing on what we — as men — can do,” he said.

Hale and Scott have a second daughter now, and both completed a five-day certification course that qualified them to volunteer as peer counselors. Rush is now looking at hiring Hale part-time to lead a male-only group.

Can you imagine? Think of how that education might translate to support at home — and more acceptance in public. The results could literally be life-saving.

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