Breastfeeding week special: Understanding the role of race in the practice

Every year, World Breastfeeding Week gives advocates the opportunity to take the topic centre stage. I am she, she is me. As it stands I have been breastfeeding for 1528 days (or 4 years, 2 months and 6 days). Wow you say, and yes I would agree. I have always been confident to breastfeed and never questioned if I was going to nurture my children in any other way. However, during my first pregnancy I was continually questioned if I was going to do so. I had no idea that breastfeeding was so contentious in the modern day. I was determined to get to the bottom of this and champion this extremely natural act of love that was so intrinsic to me.

My mother encouraged breastfeeding, baby wearing, co-sleeping; all the things that seem to be debated in today’s modern world. If you’re going to ask me the reason for this debate, I would tell you that capitalism has a major role in this and corporate greed has created an environment that has succeeded in putting profit over the health of our children, but that’s a different article altogether.

There are many mothers who question their choice of baby feed. Some women aren’t physically able to breastfeed, but when you can, I’m always interested to understand the issues that have caused discourse and where these stem from. As a person who has been educating themselves on racism for over a decade, I am very aware of the history of wet-nursing. During the days of slavery in the US, many white mothers saw breastfeeding as demeaning, unattractive and primitive, so many did not choose to breastfeed their children. As a result many white babies died in early infanthood.

Enslaved black women had no other choice but to breastfeed. But what became clear was, slave children grew healthy, were robust and had higher rates of survival. This revelation led to the exploitation of black mothers and the birth of the practice of wet-nursing. White mothers, particularly in the South, began to forcefully outsource their breastfeeding to enslaved mothers at the expense of their own children. This resulted in a shift that saw many slave babies being separated from their mothers, with many dying due to lack of nutrition.

As you can imagine, becoming a wet nurse had a number of detrimental emotional effects on black enslaved women, beyond those created by more traditional forms of slavery. As a tactile mother myself, the only way I can describe the bond created through breastfeeding is supernatural – you will not form a bond closer than this. I’m not saying that mothers who don’t breastfeed are not strongly bonded to their children; I am just describing the magic of breastfeeding – as you can tell, I’m a fan. To imagine what it would feel like to have this ripped away doesn’t bear thinking however this is what happened to so many black mothers.

Naturally, many black mothers formed stronger bonds with their slave mistresses’ children, leaving the biological bond with their own children in disrepair. Understanding this history may help us to consider if wet-nursing shaped contemporary distaste for the practice among black women. When emancipation ensued, black women began to distance themselves from breastfeeding due to the many negative associations. Research has shown that black women in the US are the less likely to breastfeed compared to all other ethnicities.

So what is the position in the UK?

The UK has actively been attempting to increase rates of breastfeeding because of the proven health benefits for mothers and babies. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that babies should be breastfed exclusively for 6 months and beyond this with solid foods.

The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, although it has slowly been increasing over the past few years. In England, just over four out of five (83%) mothers now start breastfeeding, but the improvements haven’t led to longer durations. By 6 weeks, the proportion of breastfeeding dropped to 57%, with only 36% of mothers still breastfeeding at 6 months. What may be less obvious to many is the significant role ethnicity plays.

The Millennium Cohort Study of 2000/1 has been tracking the lives of approximately 20,000 children in the UK and the study revealed that well over 90% of Black African and Black Caribbean mothers’ breastfed at birth. At three months, Black African mothers were more than 5 times likely than white mothers to have started and continued to breastfeed, the complete opposite of the US. There are many reasons behind this but more importantly, it shows the role history can play. The culture of breastfeeding for black women in the UK is vastly different from our US cousins. Even the fact that the UK has such generous maternity policies compared to the US, has allowed for more black mothers in the UK to balance our ability to breastfeed with the demands of work. In the US, the average paid maternity leave period is 2.8 weeks! Women of colour in the US are more likely to be in low-income jobs that only offer this statutory option.  

Black mothers in the UK are the example to the US. Where we can offer support, we must. According to The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, support from family and friends is very influential in a woman’s decision to begin and continue breastfeeding. We can and should use our platforms to celebrate and encourage this. The benefits are unquestionable; for baby – bonding, immunity and protection, cognitive and behavioural development and reduced obesity. For mothers – those good oxytocin hormones, quicker return of the uterus to regular size, reduced rates of breast and ovarian cancer in later life and delayed periods (the dream!).

Additionally the healthcare industry need to make a greater effort to support and encourage mothers to breastfeed including:

  • Greater promotion of support groups
  • More one-on-one support and mentoring after birth
  • More ethnically diverse ambassadors via advertising and social media depicting positive breastfeeding images

Black breastfeeding week (25-31 August)

Some have queried the need to have a separate breastfeeding week for black mothers. Black infant mortality rates are twice as high as other infants. As well as this, it’s imperative to understand that there are historical, cultural, social, economic, political, and psychosocial barriers that affect some black women. These barriers created through slavery have sadly shaped the perceptions and attitudes toward breastfeeding within the black community and has subsequently contributed to lower breastfeeding rates in some areas.

I encourage all breastfeeding mothers (even if you did this for one week) to support black breastfeeding week and continue to help #NormaliseBreastfeeding. As a whole community, we can elevate one another for the sake of our children. Things are changing. As I say in most of my work, we are all in this together. Listening to and learning the issues that have shaped the way we operate will help to us all to move forward in the right direction in solidarity.  

Sending love and light always.

DiDi x

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