I remember being pregnant with my daughter, and one of the elders in my community, an older Black woman that had birthed her own tribe of children, told me that in order to prepare for breastfeeding I should take a toothbrush and brush my nipples in the shower. She told me that this would harden the skin on my nipples because the suction of the baby would be “uncomfortable.”
Looking back, I realized that she was being polite in saying “uncomfortable.” My first few weeks of breastfeeding were a much more intense experience.
One night, I sat on the sofa crying silently between my mother and my daughter’s father. Tears spilled over my cheeks as we watched a movie and I held my newborn daughter. I was three days postpartum and my breasts were painfully engorged with milk. The only way I can describe how milk engorgement feels is to compare it to what I would assume breast implants feel like right after surgery. My breasts were at least two cup sizes larger than normal, they were extremely hard, and I felt this low vibrational pain that would migrate around my chest. My nipples were chafed and calloused. Even though my daughter had a decent latch, she would suckle, rest for only a moment, and then cry. I felt as if I were not providing her with enough milk and was somehow starving my child. How was this happening?
I had survived med-free labor and delivery. This was supposed to be the easy part. I always remember this day. I was a first-generation breastfeeder.
That day and many other days, I sat between people I loved the most and felt completely alone and isolated. My partner could not help me with breastfeeding because he was a man who had no experience around breastfeeding. My mother could not help me because she had not breastfed me or my brother. My friends could not help me because I was the only one in my friendship circle that had a baby. Like many Black millennial women, I was embarking on this journey alone. As I began to educate myself on breastfeeding and provide breastfeeding support to mothers through Black Moms Blog, I learned there was so much more to explore with Black breastfeeding that went far beyond the feeling of your nipples when your newborn feeds. I also realized that breastfeeding was not something that I witnessed growing up. I never saw my aunties do it, or any other Black woman for that matter. Breastfeeding was not a conversation topic at all.
As the question of why began to rise, looking into the history of breastfeeding in the Black community helped me to understand a deep generational curse.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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A history of breastfeeding in the Black community
Without the proper resources, my breastfeeding journey only lasted six months. I felt defeated. In fact, the statistics show that Black women are less likely to start breastfeeding than mothers of any other race, and even less likely to continue breastfeeding for six months. Only 69 percent of Black women initiate breastfeeding compared to 85 percent of white women. The question that is often asked after hearing these statistics is: Why? There are many reasons. There are unfortunate events deeply connected to our race as a people: a history of wet nursing, the oversexualization of our bodies, and a lack of economic and familial support are just a few.
Cultural reference should always be considered when discussing breastfeeding. During slavery, Black women were used as wet nurses. A wet nurse is someone who breastfeeds another woman’s child. The true definition of a wet nurse uses the word “employed,” but replace that word with “forced” and the reality becomes clear. It is generational that Black women have developed a disdain for breastfeeding due to our historical relationship with wet nursing. Because of wet nursing, many Black women were unable to breastfeed their own children. Can you imagine the psychological effect that must have on a moment that every mother should enjoy?
Economics should also be considered. Comparing single family households, 65 percent of Black children are raised in single-parent households, while 24 percent of white children are. Black mothers are overwhelmingly the breadwinners of their families. They are more than twice as likely as white mothers and more than 50 percent more likely than Hispanic mothers to bring in the main source of income even when partnered or married, according to the Center for American Progress. Because of this, Black women are more likely to return to work sooner and formula feed their newborns instead of breastfeeding.
Black women have a history of adverse health outcomes that are significantly reduced by breastfeeding. Breastfeeding lowers the risk of obesity, osteoporosis, and breast cancer, and reduces the risk of Type 2 diabetes by nearly one-half if done for more than two months. African Americans are 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic whites.
Breastfeeding can help lower the risk of obesity, osteoporosis, and breast cancer, which Black women die from at the highest rate.
I realize that this may all feel a bit heavy. You are currently pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or have just birthed your baby.
The last thing you want to hear about are more statistics telling Black women that we are just not getting it together like we should. It is important to understand the history, though. By understanding the history we erase the ignorance, and in this case, erasing the ignorance can improve life not only for us but for our babies and the future generations that come after us. If breastfeeding has ever made you uncomfortable, you are not alone. Sometimes it is important to just know that one truth—you do not have to do this by yourself.
Reprinted with permission from Mango Publishing Group.