When my son was born, I was told he needed formula because he had low blood sugar and jaundice, and for five hours, he was stuffed with the artificial milk, despite my pleas that he be brought to me so that I could nurse him.
I was the one with the good stuff—colostrum, that early sugar milk brimming with antibodies. But I was scared for the welfare of my son, and too exhausted to fight the power. And by the time my baby finally was brought to me, my nurse, a sistah, was, let’s say, less than encouraging. She took one look at my breasts and declared, “You have terrible nipples—you’ll never be able to nurse!” Then she roughly shoved my boob into my baby’s mouth.
That was the beginning of my breastfeeding journey.
On my way out the hospital door, a nurse practically forced a diaper bag full of formula on me, insisting that my son would need it if he got hungry—as if my always available, always sterile, always-full-of-just-enough milk breasts just wouldn’t do. My discharge papers revealed that my son had been supplemented with formula every time he left my sight!
Lucky for us, this early introduction of artificial nipples and formula didn’t ruin our breastfeeding relationship; my son has been breastfeeding for 16 months now, with no signs of letting up. But there are plenty of moms and babies who aren’t as fortunate. Although African American moms' breastfeeding initiation rate is currently at an all-time high (about 60% of black moms are nursing when they leave the hospital), only a paltry 30% are still nursing at six months and only about 12% at one year. Our society has set moms up for failure, often starting from day one. If the nurses aren’t shoving a bottle full of formula down your baby’s throat, we’re often forced to run a gauntlet of well-meaning friends and family who don't know much about nursing and offer bad—and often discouraging—advice.
And don’t get me started on nursing in public! It's as if people expect a breastfeeding mother to never leave the house! Women are so scared of other people's reactions that they hide in bathrooms or their cars or give the baby a bottle to avoid breastfeeding in a public place. You have the legal right to breastfeed your baby in public but sometimes you wouldn't know it! I have nursed my son everywhere: Target, restaurants, my in-laws’ home, the mall. I will whip out a boob to feed my child whenever and wherever necessary. Some people won’t like it and you may get looks or worse. I was asked to cover up in a hotel lobby by a teacher chaperoning a high school field trip. I pretty much had to tell her where to go and how to get there!
I say all of this not to discourage you from nursing, but to encourage you to work through the obstacles because it is so worth it. Breastmilk is a living, changing organism designed expressly for your baby. The bond you create with your child when you nurse him is unmatched. There are a million reasons to breastfeed, and for black babies especially, breast milk saves lives. Did you know that 8,000 black babies die before their first birthday in this country—triple the rate of white babies? Did you know that diseases and ailments that plague the black community, like breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes, and obesity, are prevented or lessened if you breastfeed and were breastfed?
I know that it is more difficult for black women to breastfeed. Often we don’t have the jobs with the flexibility needed to continue breastfeeding. Our partners aren’t supportive. Our families think of breastfeeding as something weird that only white women do. Our bodies have been so hypersexualized in music and the media that we think our breasts can only serve one purpose. It's a disgrace that if you want to breastfeed it takes a mix of good luck and tenacity. If we, as a nation, a world, a community, want women to breastfeed, want our babies to be healthier, then we have to truly start supporting them. That means fewer unnecessary medical interventions during childbirth, longer and paid parental leave, on-site daycare, laws requiring employers to give women breaks for pumping/nursing, and normalization and acceptance of breastfeeding in public.
Then, and only then, will we see women doing what the American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization recommend: exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and nursing until age 1 and beyond.
So if you are pregnant, take the time to learn as much as you can about breastfeeding. Read Kathi Barber’s The Black Woman’s Guide to Breastfeeding. Create a birth plan before you go to the hospital, spelling out your wishes for both labor AND breastfeeding. Talk to your friends who have nursed and ask for advice. Call the African-American Breastfeeding Alliance or your hospital’s lactation “warm line” at the first sign of difficulty. Bookmark Kellymom.com.
And of course, you can always contact me. I think I’ve become a bit of a pro! Breastfeeding is seriously one of the most amazing things I've ever done in my entire life. Snuggling my son close while he stares at me with those big brown eyes?
There is nothing better.
Tanya's note: For more on African American moms and breastfeeding, check out this podcast.