During Black Breastfeeding week, which runs from August 25th through August 31st, organizations and partners come together to raise awareness about the challenges and barriers that Black women face as it relates to breastfeeding. We take this time to also talk about what needs to be done in order to change the racial disparities (differences) in breastfeeding rates that exist in this country.
Breastfeeding rates among Black women and why this matters
According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (also called CDC), most babies (84 percent) born in 2017 in the United States were breastfed. However, in comparison to white and Hispanic babies, Black babies were less likely to have ever been breastfed. Overall, only about 74 percent of Black babies are likely to have ever been breastfed, compared to almost 87 percent of white babies.
We know that breast milk offers many great benefits and is the best food for babies in the first year of life. It has antibodies and helps protect babies from many illnesses. It also can reduce a baby’s risk for sudden infant death syndrome (also called SIDS). SIDS is the unexplained death of a baby younger than 1 year old. This is an important factor to consider, especially because in the U.S. the rate of SIDS is higher among Black babies than white and Hispanic babies.
Black moms and barriers to breastfeeding
We’ve covered all the great benefits breastmilk has for babies. But did you know that breastfeeding has many benefits for moms too? For example:
- Breastfeeding increases the amount of a hormone (chemical) in your body called oxytocin. This helps your uterus (womb) after birth go back to the size it was before you got pregnant. It also helps stop bleeding after giving birth.
- It may help lower your risk for diabetes, breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
- Helps reduce stress. The hormones your body releases can help you relax and bond with your baby.
Unfortunately, there are many reasons why a mom may not be able to continue breastfeeding, including personal, social, economic and environmental factors. The truth is that these factors affect Black women disproportionately (unequally) and make it very hard for them to continue breastfeeding, or to ever even start. Some specific challenges that affect breastfeeding rates among Black women include:
- Unpaid family leave and unsupportive work environments
- Little to no access to culturally-responsive and quality professional breastfeeding support
- Lack of breastfeeding information being provided by their health care professionals
All of these barriers are only being made worse by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Women across the country are feeling added stress. As we’ve highlighted before, too much stress, especially serious types of stress, can have a big impact on health. It can increase risk of serious health problems like postpartum depression (PPD), a condition that affects many Black women but that is many times untreated or overlooked by our health system. Having PPD may make it hard for you and your baby to get used to breastfeeding.
A call to action through advocacy
Increasing access to high quality supportive and culturally-responsive health care is vital to improving the health of all moms and babies. This includes virtual or telehealth breastfeeding support that can be easily accessed by Black women, especially as we settle into our “new normal”.
March of Dimes is committed to reducing racial disparities in our country. Through our advocacy work at the federal, state and local level, we promote health equity by addressing social determinants of health, racism and unfairness so every pregnancy and every baby can be healthy.