It’s possible to change low rates of Black breastfeeding, but it starts with acknowledging the legacy of slavery
This Black Breastfeeding Week, you may notice an increase in social media messages encouraging Black moms to breastfeed. As public depictions of breastfeeding become less taboo, celebrity moms like Rihanna, Chrissy Teigen, and Keke Palmer have taken out their breasts on social media and openly discussed breastfeeding their children. Although these moms have plenty of detractors, support from other moms is effusive.
It’s a new era for breastfeeding moms, but racial disparities still exist, especially for Black moms. Today, despite growing acceptance of breastfeeding in public, Black moms still attempt breastfeeding at significantly lower rates than most other racial groups. While 90% of Asian infants and 86% of White babies receive human milk, only 74% of Black infants are breastfed at some point in infancy.
Black Breastfeeding Week, a week started more than 40 years ago to highlight racial disparities in breastfeeding rates, serves as a reminder of these disparities. The public health solution is clear: get more Black moms to start breastfeeding and give them support to continue. Eliminating cultural biases against breastfeeding and reversing anti-nursing stigma in Black communities should follow close behind.
But as medical sociologists and breastfeeding researchers, we believe that increasing rates through a public health approach isn’t enough. Breastfeeding rates in Black communities can only be improved by reshaping Black breastfeeding narratives that have deep roots in the legacy of slavery.
It’s time to reclaim breastfeeding as an inherently Black maternal act.
For Black women, the trauma of slavery is not a distant memory; it’s a living legacy that still affects our health to this day. During enslavement, Black women were forced to serve as wet nurses for White children, often breastfeeding White babies at the expense of their own. This robbed Black mothers of the choice to breastfeed their children and instilled shame in their bodies – they were merely vehicles delivering nutrition to their owners’ offspring.
Under this system, the act of nursing was no longer a way to nurture maternal-infant bonds. It was a commodified service.
This legacy of maternal dehumanization has been transmitted through generations, both by individuals and institutions. White supremacy continues to frame breastfeeding’s dominant narrative. Despite efforts like Black Breastfeeding Week, media and healthcare sources consistently present the ‘ideal’ breastfeeding mother as White, middle-class, and possessing formal education.
Black mothers have less access to baby-friendly hospitals where breastfeeding is the default; this means that few Black moms are likely to leave the hospital feeling confident to continue to nurse. Thanks to slavery’s legacy, the Black communities also have fewer members experienced with lactation, meaning that Black moms also lack the support system needed to extend their practice outside of the hospital.
Instead of working towards increasing Black breastfeeding rates, we must acknowledge, and then reclaim, the narrative of Black breastfeeding. But this requires more than educating Black moms or putting more moms of color on public health posters.
Seven generations after the end of the Civil War, the narrative of White supremacy predominates in much of the United States. How can we expect narratives of maternal bodily oppression to change with any more expediency?
Black women already grapple with a dearth of Black lactation consultants and face microaggressions in medical settings, contributing to lower Black maternal health. Fewer than 2% of licensed International Board-Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs) identify as Black.
Most maternal and infant deaths occur in low-income, rural, and predominantly BIPOC communities; fortunately, breastfeeding can provide protection against some of the causes of these deaths. Unfortunately, the communities suffering from these deaths lack the resources needed to train the types of community health workers who support breastfeeding practices.
Current efforts to reshape the narrative of Black breastfeeding include lactation consultant training programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Although this is a step in the right direction, it cannot be the sole solution.
Black lactation consultants, like Black women, need more than training, because they are also navigating structural racism and racial bias in healthcare settings. Black lactation consultants are subject to high levels of burnout from working against generations of anti-breastfeeding stigma.
Rather than merely getting more Black moms to breastfeed, Black Breastfeeding Week is an opportunity to acknowledge our collective history of privileging breastfeeding as White and to recognize that health practices cannot change within a dominant oppressive narrative.
It’s time to reclaim breastfeeding as an inherently Black maternal act. Central to this mission is placing the experiences of Black women breastfeeding in the U.S. at the forefront of breastfeeding advocacy and awareness efforts. The call extends beyond simply championing breastfeeding; it’s about confronting the deep-rooted challenges faced by mothers who have been historically made vulnerable.
Leia Belt, MA, is a medical sociology PhD candidate. She writes about measuring the impact of structural racism on health outcomes for groups racialized as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color as a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project, in partnership with AcademyHealth.
Jill Inderstrodt, PhD, MPH, is a maternal health services researcher. She writes about family health as a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project, in partnership with AcademyHealth.