Black Breastfeeding Week - African American Mothers Share Their Personal Breastfeeding Stories

black breastfeeding week 1.JPGAugust 1-7th was World Breastfeeding Week, and the entire month of August was National Breastfeeding Awareness Month.  Science & Sensibility shared information and resources on the topic of breastfeeding in several posts this month: Favorite Online Resources for Lactation and Childbirth Educators, Instructor Has a Clear Bias Toward BreastfeedingBreastfeeding Stats for the US - Bleak or Better Than You Thought?Can Breastfeeding Ease the Effects of Racism and Discrimination? and most recently, a Brilliant Activities for Birth Educators - Orange You Going to Use This Breastfeeding Class Activity?

As we prepare to close out the month, our final post on breastfeeding rightly turns the focus to Black Breastfeeding Week (August 25-31, 2016).  This year's theme is "Oh, What a Joy" - celebrating the sweet bonds and perserverance. Black Breastfeeding Week is designed to raise awareness and provide support in black communities.  Both the breastfeeding initiation rate and the duration rate of breastfeeding in Black families has been lower than the rates in white families for more than four decades. Low birth weight, preterm deliveries and maternal complications such as preeclampsia are all higher in Black women and the Black infant mortality rate is more than twice that of white babies.  Breastfeeding and the important benefits it provides can help all babies, but for the most vulnerable and the sickest, breastmilk is a critical component that can mean the difference between life and death.

Black Breastfeeding Week was established four years ago by three women, Kimberly Seals Allers, Kiddada Green and Anaya Sangodele-Ayoka, all leaders in the field of maternal child health, with a focus on families of color.  In the past four years, attention, discussion and events focused on supporting Black Breastfeeding Week have only grown as people of all colors recognize the health disparities that exist right here in the United States, between white families and Black families.  These disparities have serious lifelong impacts on babies and families, simply due to the color of one’s skin.

Kimberly Seals Allers wrote an excellent commentary on the top five reasons why such an awareness program is needed at all.

There are many activities around the country to support Black Breastfeeding Week.  A full event list can be found here, including an upcoming Twitter chat and national "Lift Up" community event on Saturday, August 29th.  

Today on Science & Sensibility, I would like to share with permission, two stories written by Black mothers who shared their breastfeeding experience.  Their stories are different but their voice and their message is equally important.  These stories and more can be found in the book Free to Breastfeed: Voices of Black Mothers  edited by Jeanine Valrie Logan and  Anayah Sangodele -Ayokae and published by Praeclarus Press.  The excerpts were done by Kaitlyn Lewis.  This book offers the new or expectant mother the experience of seeing her experience reflected in the stories and pictures of other women. While there is growing coverage to the disparities in breastfeeding rates, the actual thoughts and experiences of African-American nursing mothers are overlooked. It is precisely these first-hand experiences that breastfeeding mothers seek from other women.

BBW-Logo-AugustDates.pngLet A Tradition Be Born by Natalie D. Preston-Washington

There is no legacy of breastfeeding on my side of the family. I am my parent’s only child and my mother did not breastfeed me. Nor did her sister breastfeed her daughter, which explains why my aunt was so curious and attentive when I would breastfeed in her presence.

Is he still sucking?

Does it hurt?

How long you gonna breastfeed?

Is he finished?

Every visit. Every nursing session. The same series of questions.

At first I was put off by her extreme curiosity. Then, after speaking with my mother and learning how breastfeeding was not embraced “back then,” I understood. My aunt had not experienced it firsthand and there we were in living color for her to observe. From that point on I viewed her queries as an opportunity to enlighten.

Yes, he is still nursing. Sometimes he will break for a bit and then resume. At first it hurt when he latched on until we both figured out what we were doing. Now it’s easy breezy...I committed to three months, then six months, now who knows? I am in no rush to give Luke milk from a cow or some artificial source. Yes, he is asleep. A successful nursing session!

I find it interesting that slaves nursed their children, and their master’s kids. And, I would assume that women breastfed during the depression years, if for no other reason than financial motivation. However, my mom’s civil rights generation appears to have dropped the baton during the sexy ’70s, when I was born.

In 2011, visits to my OB/Gyn have not convinced me that breastfeeding is on a resurgence. I see a clear delineation between the nursers and the nots.

Families should be the first line of support when it comes to breastfeeding. If a mom is able to produce milk, then she should be educated, encouraged, and enabled with the necessary resources to breastfeed. The fact that milk is available from other non-maternal sources at little-to-no cost is irrelevant.

Likewise, as Black women who nurse, we should make it a point to educate, encourage, and enable other mothers to nurse. The fact that the other mothers are not relatives, or are of a different ethnicity, is irrelevant.

Cover free to breastfeed.jpgNourishing My Babies, Myself by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende

As I lay on the operating table, I heard a deep gutsy cry from my 9 lb 10 oz baby girl. She had taken her time, coming into the world at 41 weeks, and after 18 hours of unproductive labor. My doctor performed a c-section, and as he placed Chichi on my chest, my heart lurched and I burst into tears. I fell in love and knew instinctively from that moment on my whole being was for her benefit.

After I was settled in my room, a nurse brought Chichi to me to breastfeed. I had been asked prior to my labor and delivery whether or not I intended to breastfeed. I found the question quite bizarre because I had never thought that breastfeeding was optional. This was the American way.

I come from Zimbabwe, where breastfeeding is the norm. From my experience, women who give formula do so as supplementation to the breast, and this is usually only done when the mother returns to work or has to be away from her baby for extended time periods.

However, for many women even supplementing is not an option because of the costly nature of baby formula and the fear of making the baby ill by using inadequately sterilized bottles or contaminated water. I was surprised when, as I held Chichi, hungrily taking in her every feature, a lactation specialist came into the room to “facilitate” the breastfeeding. After a few frustrating minutes with the specialist manhandling my breasts, pinching my nipple, and pushing the baby’s head towards it, I politely told her to give the baby and me a few minutes alone to try to figure it out by ourselves. My great-grandmothers, grandmothers, aunts, and mother had all successfully nursed their babies without the assistance of any lactation specialist.

I knew that if I held my baby to the breast, she would open her mouth and latch on. I had seen this so many times in Zimbabwe: on buses, on park benches, in the market, at parties, and in doctors’ waiting rooms. Breastfeeding is accepted as a part of the culture, and the breast of a nursing woman is not seen as a sex object, but as a source of sustenance. Strangers will offer a mother with a baby a seat on the bus so that she can feed her baby, or offer to carry her luggage so she can feed the baby.

The specialist came back into the room to find a tired but contented mother and child resting comfortably on the pillows. Chichi was getting nourishment and immunity from the colostrum in my breast, while I was getting spiritual sustenance, and the rush of oxytocin that would eventually restore my body and my uterus to its pre-pregnancy state.

I nursed Chichi for 18 months because we both enjoyed the closeness that this intimate time afforded us. I nursed in public, much to the horror of many people. However, I have never been one to care too much about the opinion of strangers, and this instance was no different. As long as I was not breaking any laws, and my baby was hungry, I would breastfeed her.

I greeted my second daughter, Kai, with a warm breast, and for 10 months of her life, she and I bonded during nursing time. She weaned herself after 10 months. Nursing her was a very different experience from nursing Chichi because they are different personalities. I got to know their individual quirks and reactions as infants just from tuning into them while they nursed at my breast. This knowledge was very useful because it informed my responses to each of them, and I could parent them by providing for their individual needs.

black breastfeeding week 2.JPGMy twins, Shami and Tendo, were also breastfed, but the experience was very different from nursing my singletons. There were times when I would nurse them one at a time, and other moments when I would nurse the two of them together. I also had to pump a lot more than I did with the singletons in order to stimulate high milk production.

It was a very busy time for our family. However, I found one-on-one time with the twins during breastfeeding sessions. Although they are identical, I got to know each of them and to experience their unique characters.

As I reflect on the experience of breastfeeding my children, I recall cracked nipples, engorged breasts, and embarrassing leaks. Yet not once during that time did I consider formula feeding a viable option.

The knowledge that I was giving my children the best there possibly was in terms of infant nutrition was enough incentive to go through the rough patches.

The nipples healed, I pumped when the pressure became unbearable, and I used breast pads if I was going to be away from the babies for a long time. I had very good support in my husband and my mother, who would often feed the babies bottled breast milk so that I could have a break. Despite the moments of difficulty, the moments of pure joy and contentment were greater. The memories of quiet tenderness are more dominant than those of discomfort.

The period of breastfeeding was one of intense awareness for me. I was aware of how and what I ate because I knew this affected milk quality. I included lots of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and high-quality protein sources into my diet, and avoided fatty, sugary, artificially flavored foods. I was acutely aware of any increase in stress levels because my milk output would decrease. I, therefore, made sure I got adequate sleep and exercise. I was relaxed, and avoided situations that were upsetting.

These healthy lifestyle habits were ones I would continue with long after I stopped breastfeeding. The result is that I lost all the weight inevitably gained during pregnancy, and I have four happy, healthy girls, aged 10, 8, and 5 years. I continue to take care of myself now, as I did when I was nursing, ensuring that I am giving my daughters the best of me now as I did when they were infants. This makes me a very busy, but fulfilled mother.


What are you and your organizations doing to celebrate Black Breastfeeding Week in your community and with the families you work with?  Please let us know in the comments below.

Images courtesy of the Indiana Black Breastfeeding Coalition.

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