When it comes to breastfeeding, Black moms have historically been disadvantaged. Today, Black women have the lowest breastfeeding initiation rate of all racial groups at 69.4 percent, and they have the shortest breastfeeding duration. As more Black women share their breastfeeding journeys, they are seeking support, raising awareness and advocating for the future.

The History of Black Women and Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding in the Black community dates back to slave owners forcing enslaved women to breastfeed other people’s children. Iris Jones, a maternal child health professional and director of lactation at Rumble Tuff, says that these negative connotations have been passed down for generations. Black women also have been historically over-sexualized, which adds to the stigma and shame of breastfeeding.

“This history impacts Black mothers, in that the resources, information and access to true breastfeeding support has been limited,” Jones said.

Benefits of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding brings a lower risk of diseases, such as asthma, ear infections, gastrointestinal infections, diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer. In addition, breastfeeding helps balance post-birth hormones and aids the uterus in returning to its normal size. 

Barriers to Breastfeeding

Common barriers to breastfeeding in the Black community include stigma, limited education, a lack of family and peer support, and healthcare inequities. Black women also are less likely than white women to work at jobs that offer paid family support. This is typically associated with a longer continuation of breastfeeding. 

Black neighborhoods also lack hospital practices that support breastfeeding, and formula companies tend to target Black communities. Jones explains that formula companies send out free samples of formula to expectant parents. OBGYN clinics in Black communities also tend to carry these sample formula cans. 

“We, as a society, wonder why women are so quick to consider formula,” Jones said. “Yet, formula is so easily accessible and gets promoted before birthing parents even give birth.”

In the prenatal period, expecting parents typically receive “free” gifts in the mail from formula companies that contain an array of items, such as bottles, onesies and coupons that discount the formula. 

“Formula promotion is apparent in almost every aspect of an expectant parent’s journey,” she said. “It is seemingly more accessible than resources that truly support breastfeeding.” 

Resources at Work and in the Community

Workplaces can support Black women by providing proper access to breastfeeding resources starting in the prenatal period. Jones explains that insurance companies should also cover prenatal breastfeeding classes, breastfeeding supplies, breast pumps and outpatient resources. 

“Just like formula companies send samples, it should be more acceptable for companies to send out breastfeeding supplies,” she said. 

In addition, communities can better support Black mothers by providing safe spaces and a sense of advocacy for breastfeeding. This would include equitable access to breastfeeding support groups, lactation clinics and prenatal breastfeeding classes. 

One example is North Carolina A&T’s Community Lactation Clinic, which offers free resources like prenatal classes and outpatient appointments. 

“This is a great start in the triad area of North Carolina,” Jones said. “I’m hopeful to see this model of care replicated throughout the state and at the national level.”

There are also more support groups for the Black community and women of color. In North Carolina, Mahogany Milk Support Group and Queen City Cocoa Beans are two options. 

The Future of Breastfeeding 

Breastfeeding in the Black community is steadily on the rise. In recent years, the Black community has been rewriting the narrative by creating a sense of liberation, support and camaraderie around breastfeeding. Jones attributes the progress to increased access to equitable care, community resources and wider support for the Black community to provide human milk for their infants. 

“With initiatives, such as Black Breastfeeding Week, there’s been a huge movement in recent years to destigmatize breastfeeding,” she said. “Breastfeeding within the Black community is becoming more acceptable and more of a cultural norm.”

Advice for Black Moms

Every Black woman, Black baby and Black family deserves support and the necessary resources to promote a successful breastfeeding journey from the prenatal period all the way through weaning. 

For the Black mothers who are struggling to breastfeed during the postpartum period, don’t forget to show yourself grace. Jones advises to drink plenty of fluids, preferably water, and to eat a balanced, well-rounded diet full of fruits, vegetables and foods that are high in protein. 

Also, pay attention to foods that do not sit well with the baby, and note if the baby becomes fussy after you have had certain foods. Jones also encourages expecting moms to connect with a lactation professional in their area to ensure they receive proper guidance and resources to ensure a successful breastfeeding journey. 

“While breastfeeding is a natural process, it is not always seamless,” she said. “The journey is different for every mother-infant dyad.”