The theme for Black Breastfeeding Week 2021 is The Big Pause: Collective Rest for Collective Power. Such a timely and poignant theme after a year of lockdowns, homeschooling and BLM activism. But why do we need a Black Breastfeeding Week at all? Why distinguish between mothers of different ethnicities?
Why Black Breastfeeding Week is needed
“U.S. breastfeeding surveillance has consistently demonstrated that rates of breastfeeding initiation, duration, and exclusivity are 10–20 percentage points lower among black infants, compared with white infants.” (1) This means that in the US there is a trend for black babies to be breastfed less often and for a shorter period of time than their white peers. The ramifications of this are great and disproportionately negative for black families and the health of their mothers and babies.
There is a trend for black babies to be breastfed less often and for a shorter period of time than their white peers.
In the UK though there seems to be quite a different story. The 2010 Infant Feeding Survey found that black mothers had higher initiation rates than white mothers (96% and 79% respectively); this trend continued at 6 weeks (89% and 65%) and at six months too (64% and 40%) (2). At the same time though, Black women are over four times more likely than white women to die as a result of complications in pregnancy (3). Four times. Infant mortality rates are equally as shocking: black Caribbean and African babies are twice as likely as their white counterparts to die (3). This indicates that there is a significant difference in the experiences of black and white mothers in the UK.
Breastfeeding as a mother of mixed heritage
Perhaps there are things that we can learn from the Black British community when it comes to improving breastfeeding rates for all? In my limited personal experience as a mother of mixed heritage – Jamaican and Irish – with Zimbabwean in-laws, I can say that I definitely felt as though I was expected to breastfeed.
I remember stories from my own mother about how my Jamaican family were horrified that she formula fed my sisters and I. Although no one said it, knowing that all of the mothers in my fiancé’s family breastfed too made me feel like I would be robbing my son of that same love if I was somehow unable to do it. This may have been why even when I literally had a nervous breakdown after I returned to work at 9 months postpartum, breastfeeding was the thing that I clung to. It gave me a sense of control over my motherhood even when it felt like the only thing I was doing right. I definitely felt pressure to be a ‘Strong Black Woman,’ even though the Irish in me is alive and kicking.
I definitely felt pressure to be a ‘Strong Black Woman,’ even though the Irish in me is alive and kicking.
As a nursing mother, the black side of my family supported me in the best way
What I noticed that set me apart from my white friends postpartum was the overwhelming amount of support that I got. For weeks after I gave birth to my son, relatives near and far trickled by dropping off parcels of food, cooking, cleaning, and allowing me to nap during the daytime in the fourth trimester. It is no exaggeration to say that I do not know if I would still be breastfeeding if that had not been the case.
It’s not that the white side of my family was unsupportive, they just did not know what to expect or how to support me as a nursing mama. My late nan is the last person in our family to breastfeed and she did so as a single mother who had fled a convent in Belfast in the thirties. I cannot even begin to imagine just how hard her experiences of early motherhood were. I can only hope that she was supported by someone, anyone. Every one of us deserves support, irrespective of where in the world we are born.
My late nan is the last person in our family to breastfeed and she did so as a single mother who had fled a convent in Belfast in the thirties.
Breastfeeding should be celebrated not hidden away
My son is two years now and it’s safe to say that support from all side of our families has waned – I’m working on that though. We’re a long way off stopping breastfeeding, and so until that time, I will be celebrating World Breastfeeding Week, Black Breastfeeding Week, and every other breastfeeding celebration that there is. Because it should be celebrated, not hidden away.
We should be celebrated as mothers who refuse to be dictated to by society’s unnatural obsession with ending our nursing journeys before our children or we are ready to do so. Happy Black Breastfeeding Week, mamas.