Malikah Garner knows firsthand the challenges Black women face when it comes to breastfeeding—from cultural barriers to stereotypes stemming from slavery.
“I had to do a lot of educating around my family because it was very new to them,” Garner, 31, a breastfeeding mother and advocate, told Rewire.News. “They were very supportive but skeptical.”
A mother of two boys in Michigan, Garner is one of many mommy ambassadors of the Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association that’s celebrating the sixth annual Black Breastfeeding Week from August 25-31. August is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month and the #BBW18 and #LoveOnTop theme has flooded social media with empowering photos and stories of Black mamas breastfeeding.
That’s no small feat for a community that has long faced a substantial gap in maternal health care and infant mortality and straggles behind white mothers when it comes to breastfeeding.
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Breastfeeding advocates point to a lack of intergenerational experience and support due to the legacy of enslaved Black mothers neglecting their children to nurse white babies.
“That comes from being wet nurses during slavery, the lack of mainstream role models for breastfeeding and a lack of multi-generational support, and stereotypes about breastfeeding in the Black community,” said Garner, who faced reactions for breastfeeding her son such as, “That’s for white women” and “That’s slave stuff.”
“Love is at the core of mothering, it permeates everything we do from making a commitment to breastfeed to how we cope with parenting challenges, even loss,” Kimberly Seals Allers, co-founder of Black Breastfeeding Week, said in a statement. “Given the social and cultural barriers to breastfeeding, particularly for black families, it takes more commitment, more support, and more love from others to breastfeed successfully. We want black mothers and families to know they are surrounded by loving support in a growing community of folks who are also committed to making sure more black babies receive the optimal nutrition from the start of their lives.”
Breastfeeding is known to have many health benefits for infants and mothers. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. But only about 64 percent of Black mothers initiate breastfeeding and at 6.4 weeks they have the shortest breastfeeding duration of all races in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The lack of this cultural understanding coupled with a lack of diversity in health-care facilities often compounds the problems, advocates said.
As a first-generation breastfeeding mother, Garner said she barely nursed her first son, now 6, beyond a month because of a lack of knowledge and support. The Detroit-area hospital in which she gave birth did not advocate enough for breastfeeding or help her with her latching issues, so she switched to formula, often pushed by hospital staff before sending them home—another problem Black mothers face.
With her second child, she gave birth in a suburban hospital that had a well-established lactation center, which turned out to be a wholly different experience. Nursing her second son for 30 months now, she said it has been an incredible journey and a way for her to normalize breastfeeding for her older son.
Mommy ambassador and board member of the Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association, Victoria Washington is a first generation breastfeeding mom in the Detroit area. Her mother did not nurse; if her grandmother did, she didn’t talk about it.
Armed with the knowledge she now has, Washington, 28, used a pro-breastfeeding birthing center and a midwife to give birth instead of a traditional hospital. “That made all the difference for me,” she said.
She continues to breastfeed her 2-year-old daughter: “I’m enjoying the breastfeeding journey. I don’t really have a deadline in mind. I firmly believe when she is ready to stop nursing, she will—she is very independent.”
While her family is supportive, “it is sometimes shocking to them that I am still breastfeeding and the fact that I’ve chosen to stick to it,” she said.“I am very open and vocal about breastfeeding and I say yes, it’s what I’m doing, it’s my right.”
The lagging breastfeeding rate among Black women is also due to “a lack of education, knowledge, and understanding about how natural it is,” she said.
The awareness week includes more than 110 events around the United States to share and celebrate Black breastfeeding experiences in an effort to educate, encourage, and build a community of support. This year’s celebration includes the launch of a Black Infant Remembrance Memorial online to acknowledge, comfort, and heal families affected by the high Black infant mortality rate in the United States.
The response so far has been “really encouraging,” advocates said.
“We want to normalize breastfeeding for Black women,” Garner said. “I know that this is happening but to see more moms doing it more and more is so amazing. It’s not anything I can quantify right now but I do feel that breastfeeding is on the rise in the United States. I can just feel that a change is happening.”