Recent figures released from the US Department of Human and Health Services indicates that only about 55% of African American women attempt to breastfeed their child. It’s actually a figure that is up for the 35% in the 1970s. The specific areas with the lowest numbers come from the South. Unfortunately the figures don’t surprise me.
I am an African American woman living in the Southeast. To be clear, my family background is actually Caribbean, but I was born in the states. The difference may seem slight, but often when it comes to ideology “Caribbean American” doesn’t always equal “African American”. By my own experience, this is often the case in the view of breastfeeding, usually more accepted and prevalent among my Caribbean female friends.
It’s been hard for me to find breastfeeding role models within my own ethnicity. That really isn’t a priority to me, but I do find it troublesome. With the proven benefits of breastfeeding including lower risk of childhood obesity and diabetes, and lowering risks of cancer for the mother–all things that plague the African American community–I’m left wondering why so few of us are taking advantage of the obvious.
Then again, maybe it’s not so obvious. I consider myself an educated woman, yet I didn’t know about all the benefits until I got pregnant. There was no bases of experience, or voices of encouragement, trumpeting the joys of breastfeeding to me. And I understand part of the reason: before the years of La Leche League many women, some of whom were not only in the healthcare profession, but specifically OB-GYN nurses, found the art of breastfeeding mystifying. When the change in mindset came, and help started to emerge for woman who wanted to breastfeed, it didn’t trickle down to the African American community so easily. Let’s be honest: when many had little or subpar health care for themselves, they’d be hard pressed to find someone, anyone, that could help them demystify breastfeeding. My mother was one of women lost in the shroud. She tried and failed, with no support, to breastfeed. She didn’t even know there was support available.
Now that it’s my turn, my own mother has little words of encouragement. Her experience was sour, and honestly so it her advice. It’s not really her fault–it is what it is. What is left for me, the generation that follows, is to be OK with being the only African American mom in my local chapter of La Leche League. I’ve met some fabulous women and learned some really great things from the LLL. They are in my community circle–”mamas in the milk”.
In the same breath, it’s my job to speak against any negative talk amongst mamas in my ethnic circle. I can show them that breastfeeding doesn’t have to be a mystery. It’s normal, natural, and definitely within their range of possibilities. I can let them know its worth it for them, and their next generation to try.