closing the gap for black breastfeeding mothers

During the month of August, UPMC recognized Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and the final days of the month are Black Breastfeeding Week. Black women often don’t receive as much breastfeeding support as other women. Yet the unique challenges Black families face make breastfeeding all the more important for moms and babies.

Black mothers are 3 times more likely than white women to die during — or soon after — pregnancy. Black infants are more than twice as likely than white infants to die in their first year of life. Racism and bias — both in society and in the health care system — all play a part in the problem.

Breastfeeding offers benefits for mothers and their babies. Supporting Black mothers in breastfeeding is one way to help reduce the health problems they face. Black mothers can ask healthcare providers for help finding Black breastfeeding support.

Why Breastfeeding Matters for Black Families

Black mothers don’t receive as much breastfeeding support as white mothers. Several studies have shown that hospitals who mostly care for Black women don’t often encourage women to breastfeed. They also don’t offer as much support for lactation services for Black women.

Black women are more likely than other women to return to work within 12 weeks of giving birth. Many workplaces, especially those that employ more Black women, don’t offer nursing support or flexible work hours. Black women cannot fix those social problems on their own, but they can ask for breastfeeding resources and support.

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Talking About Black Breastfeeding Before Birth

Your OB/GYN or midwife should start talking to you about breastfeeding during prenatal or pre-conception visits. If they don’t, bring up the topic yourself.

It’s normal to have questions and concerns about breastfeeding. Your doctor can provide answers and resources to address those concerns.

Another reason it’s helpful to talk to your birth provider about breastfeeding early on is to become more comfortable with the idea. Society has often promoted unhealthy sexual views of breasts. It’s important to see breasts as a healthy and loving way to feed and care for your child.

Don’t be afraid to ask your provider about any anxiety you have about breastfeeding or about its benefits for you too. Some women may feel self-conscious asking about breastfeeding. But nursing your baby is a healthy, normal, beneficial activity.

Your First Days with Your Baby

The first few days after birth are one of the most important times to establish a breastfeeding relationship with your baby. It’s an opportunity to learn how to latch your baby to your breast and to ask for any help you need. It’s also a chance to learn to trust your body and what it can do for your baby.

If the hospital doesn’t offer you access to a lactation consultant, ask for one. Lactation consultants can help ensure your baby latches well so they get the most milk and you don’t feel pain. If you have questions about how much milk they’re getting or how often you should breastfeed, lactation consultants can help.

Black women often have fewer Black role models who breastfed their own children. We encourage you to find an entrusted UPMC provider in your community and a lactation consultant that shares your cultural values.

Benefits of Breastfeeding for Black Mothers

Nursing offers many health benefits for mothers:

  • Promotes the hormone oxytocin, which reduces postpartum bleeding and helps the uterus return to normal size.
  • Decreases risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, which Black women face a greater risk of developing.
  • Decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • May temporarily stop your periods for most of the time you breastfeed.
  • May help you lose postpartum weight, though this varies for different women.
  • May be less expensive than formula and is usually more convenient than carrying around and washing bottles.
  • Offers personal fulfillment.

Breastfeeding offers many valuable mental and emotional benefits to mothers too. Many mothers speak of the joy of seeing how their bodies work and nourish their babies. Others appreciate the extra closeness and one-on-one bonding time that breastfeeding allows.

Benefits of Breastfeeding for Black Babies

One of the most amazing things about breastmilk is that your body designs it specifically for your baby. Over time, the composition of fat and other nutrients in your breastmilk changes to match what your baby needs. That means your baby is getting exactly the best possible nutrition they need without extra work from you.

Breastfeeding also offers many other benefits to infants:

  • Strengthens their immune system early on.
  • Cuts the risk of sudden infant death syndrome in half.
  • Decreases the risk of common childhood illnesses and infections, such as ear infections, cold, and throat infections.
  • Lowers the risk of stomach and intestinal infections.
  • Decreases the risk of eczema, asthma, allergies, and inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Reduces the risk of needing the hospital for more serious illnesses, such as pneumonia.
  • Decreases the baby’s risk of becoming overweight or obese later.
  • Lowers the risk of celiac disease if breastfeeding when mothers first give their children food with gluten, such as pasta or bread.
  • Smaller risk of developing type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
  • Supports bonding between mother and child.

Black Breastfeeding Support and Resources

If you want to breastfeed, ask for help. Your OB/GYN or midwife and your child’s pediatrician should have resources to give you. They can also refer you to lactation consultants, support groups, and possible mentors.

It’s okay if you feel frustrated or overwhelmed in the early days of breastfeeding, or even many months after starting. Breastfeeding experiences can also be very different from one child to the next. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially if you’re feeling pain or discomfort or your baby is having a hard time.

If you work for an employer who does not support breastfeeding or offer flexible hours, ask your doctor if they can help. Doctors may be able to provide information about employers’ legal requirements or to write your boss a letter asking for more support.

A great way to support Black moms is to lead a support group for Black breastfeeding mothers in your community. You may even want to consider becoming a lactation consultant so you can help other Black moms even more.

Black Breastfeeding Week. UPMC Central Pa. Facebook Live. Link

Infant Mortality and African Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. Link

M M Vennemann, T Bajanowski, B Brinkmann, G Jorch, K Yücesan, et al. Does Breastfeeding Reduce the Risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome? Pediatrics. March 2009. Link

Working Together to Reduce Black Maternal Mortality. Health Equity. Office of Minority Health & Health Equity (OMHHE). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link

About UPMC Magee-Womens

Built upon our flagship, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, and its century-plus history of providing high-quality medical care for people at all stages of life, UPMC Magee-Womens is nationally renowned for its outstanding care for women and their families.

Our Magee-Womens network – from women’s imaging centers and specialty care to outpatient and hospital-based services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania, so the help you need is always close to home. More than 25,000 babies are born at our network hospitals each year, with 10,000 of those babies born at UPMC Magee in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest NICUs in the country. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee in Pittsburgh as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; U.S. News & World Report ranks Magee nationally in gynecology. The Magee-Womens Research Institute was the first and is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology, with locations in Pittsburgh and Erie.