Breastfeeding is an incredibly personal journey for parents, and no two journeys are exactly alike; however, it has been well-recognized that mothers need support in order to successfully breastfeed. In fact, according to the World Health Organization:
For breastfeeding to be successfully initiated and established, mothers need the active support during pregnancy and following birth, not only of their families and communities, but also of the entire health system.
In the United States, Black women are reportedly less likely to start breastfeeding their babies, and also breastfeed for shorter amounts of time than women of other races. The racial disparity in breastfeeding rates are influenced by a variety of factors that disproportionately impact Black communities, including: high infant mortality rates, high rates of diet-related disease, lack of diversity in the lactation field, unique cultural barriers among Black women, and “first food deserts”. To tackle this issue, and support and empower Black mothers, Kimberly Seals Allers, Kiddada Green, and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka created Black Breastfeeding Week (August 25th-31st).
In Canada, the numbers on breastfeeding are slightly different. Data from 2012 shows that a whopping 93.9% of Black mothers initiated breastfeeding. However, the rates of exclusive breastfeeding to 6 months of age, which is recommended by health organizations, was only 27% in Black mothers (and 25.9% in Canadians overall), which indicates that there are still large areas for improvement in the ways we as a society support mothers during breastfeeding.
It is also important that we normalize and encourage mothers to share their own breastfeeding struggles and triumphs. To that end, and in honour of Black Breastfeeding Week, we spoke with two amazing Black moms from our Youth Subcommittee on their personal breastfeeding journeys and the advice they have for other mothers.
Aliah’s breastfeeding journey began while she was in the hospital, after delivering her son. While she started breastfeeding right away, within a few days her son had lost a considerable amount of weight. Doctors were concerned that she wasn’t producing enough milk and that he wasn’t latching properly, so she was assigned a lactation consultant, but at that point, Aliah was already in a considerable amount of pain.
“At first, I was having a lot of trouble breastfeeding to the point where I contemplated giving up. I hadn’t purchased any formula since pre-birth I was committed to the idea of breastfeeding my son, so I thought, ‘I really need to figure out breastfeeding,’ even though it was very difficult for me. By that time, my nipples had sores and scabs and would bleed during and in-between feedings. It was extremely painful. I felt the Lanolin [cream] helped with nipple lesions to some extent but it can still be very painful when your baby latches.”
Despite the pain she felt, Aliah was determined to continue breastfeeding. When her son developed thrush at 2 months old, she pumped and bottle-fed him breast milk until it cleared, taking supplements to deal with the decrease she noticed in her supply. When she went to university full-time to pursue her engineering degree, she wasn’t able to continue breastfeeding directly, but continued to use the frozen breast milk she had stored. Her desire to stick with breastfeeding stemmed from what she’d read on the many benefits breastfeeding would have for her child, and she felt that they outweighed the drawbacks. Keeping her mind on that, and not the pain during those first few weeks, was what gave her the strength to keep going.
“It’s just, keeping your mind in that moment, which is true for anything in life. I find the most beneficial things in your life probably have some of the most difficult challenges associated with them. But that’s how you appreciate them more. And so I really do feel like I was able to develop a greater bond with my son by persisting through some of those challenges in the beginning, and after overcoming these difficulties he was able to truly thrive. Now, he’s in the 90th percentile for his size, a percentile he was able to achieve within four months of me breastfeeding him.”
Another important reason Aliah was able to keep going was because she had the support of her mom, who was there throughout the whole pregnancy. Her mom was extremely encouraging when she saw her daughter struggling with breastfeeding, offering non-judgmental support and sharing her own journey to provide comfort.
“She told me her story. I didn’t know it before we’d had that open conversation. But by her sharing, and by her being supportive, I was able to really make a decision that I thought was best for myself and my son at that time, and go forward in a way where I didn’t feel guilty about it.”
Looking back, she wished that she had been assigned a lactation consultant immediately after birth, and that she had spoken to lactation consultant before her son was born, so that she could learn more about some of the challenges associated with breastfeeding and also resolution strategies and mental coaching to further prepare for the postpartum period. While she had spoken to other mothers about breastfeeding while she was pregnant, she was often reassured that it was “natural” and “easy,” which turned out to be drastically different from her own experience. The key piece of advice she would give other Black mothers: speak with others about the challenges of breastfeeding, celebrate one another’s successes, and learn from one another’s journeys.
“One thing that I found within our community is that there’s a lot of knowledge. But unfortunately, sometimes we don’t share it or we don’t share it in ways that is more humanistic. We deal with so many difficulties and barriers, and so much adversity, but we often don’t share the impact it had on us…There’s something to be said about being vulnerable [and] vulnerable doesn’t mean weak. And unfortunately, I find that people will sometimes equate the two.”
Before giving birth for the first time, Sierra didn’t have many expectations when it came to breastfeeding, as a lot of the women in her family did not breastfeed, including her own mom. She wasn't really sure what she was going to do once she gave birth, but a good friend of hers had gone through a positive breastfeeding experience and told her about the many health benefits of breast milk, which encouraged Sierra to give it a try. Still, she had a few reservations — namely: breastfeeding in public.
“At first I was a little nervous because I thought: What if I have to breastfeed in public? Would somebody feel uncomfortable with me doing that? Would I even feel comfortable? Of course I would cover her as I was feeding her, but would I still be feeling comfortable doing that? So I was never really sure, but I was open to whatever, whatever happens.”
Overall, Sierra’s breastfeeding journey with her two daughters was quite positive. She had her mother’s support, and two little girls that loved to be breastfed. Looking back, she wished she’d known a little bit more about how to prevent discomfort and how to make sure her baby was correctly latched on to her breast, because there was often a lot of pain if they were not latched on properly. She also remembered how nervous she felt with her first daughter about breastfeeding outside.
“I was a lot more timid about breastfeeding outside…I was really nervous at first. My older daughter did take both a bottle and was able to breastfeed directly. I tried not to nurse [in public] because I just felt uncomfortable, but I wish I had the knowledge of just believing: it’s okay, your babies need to eat…A lot of places I go to now, you see those signs that say this is a breastfeeding friendly place. So just knowing that it would be okay and that people were a lot more friendly than I may have thought. “
When Sierra had her second daughter, who absolutely refused to bottle feed, she became more comfortable breastfeeding publicly. This was largely because she felt a lot more comfortable with who she was and in her ability to meet her baby’s needs.
“You know, when I had my first daughter I had just turned 20 so I already looked younger, and already felt like people were looking at me, and felt really uncomfortable. But by my second one I felt more confident and more able to speak up if I needed to.”
Having a supportive environment at the beginning of her journey was very helpful to Sierra, and helped her feel secure in her decisions. The main piece of advice she would give to other Black mothers would be to trust in themselves, and to feel comfortable in the decisions they make, because at the end of the day, they are doing what’s best for themselves and their baby.
“A lot of people think that if they’re not producing milk or their baby’s not latching, then they feel like they’re letting their baby down in a way. And it’s just like, do not feel bad because everyone’s experience is different and everyone’s body is different. Of course breastfeeding is amazing and it provides great nutrients and things like that for your baby. But if you can’t, you shouldn’t feel bad or feel guilty, and this includes women that can breastfeed but choose not to, like, it’s their choice. And so, do what’s best for you, whether you can or can’t breastfeed. Just feel comfortable with your decision and feel comfortable, even if you’re outside or things like that, knowing that you’re not doing anything wrong. Do what makes you feel best.”