Kimberly Seals Allers: It’s World Breastfeeding Week. Do Black People Even Care?
By Kimberly Seals Allers
As World Breastfeeding Week comes to an end, I’m wondering how many African Americans even knew it came and went. As national headlines celebrate breastfeeding and new campaigns build movement, black women and babies continue to be left behind. This is discouraging because one of the most important things we can do to have healthier, less obese children is to celebrate and encourage more breastfeeding.
And it’s our babies who are paying the price. Increased breastfeeding among black women could mean fewer infant deaths. After all the CDC has repeatedly reported that the high black infant mortality rate (nearly double the death rate of white infants) could be reduced by as much as 50% by increased breastfeeding. Giving our babies the most complete “first food”–breast milk–means they benefit from its unique immunological properties and are less likely to have upper respiratory infections, ear infections, asthma, Type II diabetes or be obese.
Black women also pay. Breastfeeding is proven to reduce the risk of ovarian and breast cancer–and black women get breast cancer at a younger age and in a more aggressive form than white women. Too many black women are missing out on the preventative benefits of breastfeeding.
Instead, breastfeeding messaging and efforts have failed to fully engage black women and speak to their cultural nuances and barriers. And regardless of concerted efforts, I still hear far too often in my work that “breastfeeding is for white people.”
That myth is hard to deny when the movement itself is mostly white female led. If we are to bridge the racial divide in breastfeeding rates, we need more experienced lactation professionals who can work directly with our population. The higher rates of preterm babies and other high risk births among black women often result in situations that require the medical expertise and specialized care of a certified lactation consultant. As we embark on innovative and more community-focused approaches to closing the breastfeeding gap, we need more black and brown faces to lead outreach into our communities.
“You cannot send ‘Susan’ to the back-to-school jam at the church to talk about breastfeeding,” as one black IBCLC put it. “It is not going to work.”
If the industry is truly committed to changing the breastfeeding landscape (not just maintaining the status quo), then they need to better mirror the real America and address the inequities in its leadership so it can truly address inequities among breastfeeding mothers.
Then we have to extend our view beyond the hospitals and beyond messaging mothers only. We need to rethink “who” is actually doing the breastfeeding and extend education and support to fathers, grandmothers, Aunties and everyone in the community.
I recently had the privilege to lead a community assessment project focused on New Orleans, Jackson, Miss and Birmingham, Alabama. After reviewing the resources available to nursing moms, from easily accessible breastfeeding support groups to nursing rooms in public places to childcare facilities being trained in handling human milk to the community sentiment toward breastfeeding in public, we identified these areas as “first food deserts.” That is a community severely lacking accessible support for the first food. It is not a coincidence that a key common characteristic for these “desert-like” communities was also a lack of African American lactation consultants. It is also an unfortunate correlation that in these same areas where breastfeeding is at its lowest , infant mortality rates are some of the highest in the country.
Somehow we have to do better. In the past I’ve asked ILCA (International Lactation Consultants Association) to do better: Better than a handful of exam scholarships; better than a few waived registration fees; better than relegating African American women and babies to off hours, side rooms, and pre-conference status.
But most importantly, we have to save ourselves. We have to change our conversation to include the first food as the most complete, most necessary food for any infant. We have to wake up to the realities of aggressive infant formula marketing being dumped in our communities. We have to ask ourselves why we find it quite okay to use breasts to sell chicken wings and beer or to backdrop our music videos, but we are “uncomfortable” to see a mother feeding her child.
We need to shout from the rooftops in our own neighborhoods the importance of reclaiming our community responsibility for the health of our infants. We can use our own collective voice to demand that all mothers be allowed to truly “choose” their child’s first food without being subject to the marketing interests of pharmaceutical companies. We can transform our communities into First Food Friendly environments. We can change our breastfeeding narrative at a time when the collective health of our community needs now more than ever.
We can because I know we can. And next year, we will celebrate our very own Black Breastfeeding Week–and everyone will know about it.
BIO: Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, a leading commentator on African American motherhood and a internationally recognized breastfeeding advocate. A former senior editor at Essence and a writer at Fortune, Kimberly is the author of The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy and two other Mocha Manual books, published by HarperCollins and founder of MochaManual.com, (@mochamanual) an award-winning pregnancy and parenting website. Kimberly is also a Food & Community Fellow funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, working to increase awareness of the “first food” in vulnerable communities. Her next book, an in-depth analysis of the modern breastfeeding landscape will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2014. A graduate of NYU and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Kimberly is a divorced mother of two who lives in Queens. Follow her at @iamKSealsAllers.