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Is Slavery Why Black Women Aren't Breastfeeding?

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In the first of a series, Kimberly Seals Allers explores this phenomenon in search of answers.

woman breastfeeding the mocha manual motherhood in color

Kimberly Seals Allers: When it comes to breastfeeding, black mothers have somehow lost their way. For over 30 years, African-American women have had the lowest breastfeeding rates, and though the numbers have greatly increased in recent years, black moms still have the lowest rates of all ethnicities. And when it comes to the gold standard of infant nutrition -- six months of exclusive breastfeeding -- among African-Americans, the rate is only 20% compared to 40% among whites. At a time when black infant mortality rates continue to climb to woefully high levels, momlogic and take a deeper look at why more black mothers aren't breastfeeding, and urge moms to give their infants the healthiest start.

Slave Owners Purchased Us As Wet Nurses

To get to the bottom of this breastfeeding business, it's important to go back. Waaay back. A long time ago, black women were notorious for nursing. In fact, slave owners used and purchased black women as wet nurses for their own children, often forcing these mothers to stop nursing their own infants to care for others. "On the one hand, wet nursing claimed the benefits of breastfeeding for the offspring of white masters while denying or limiting those health advantages to slave infants. On the other hand, wet nursing required slave mothers to transfer to white offspring the nurturing and affection they should have been able to allocate to their own children," writes historian Wilma A. Dunaway, in the book The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, published by Cambridge University Press. And since breastfeeding reduces fertility, slave owners forced black women to stop breastfeeding early so that they could continue breeding, often to the health detriment of their infants, Dunaway writes.

wet nursing and slavery

Breastfeeding is for Poor People

But there's more to our story than breastfeeding interrupted at the hands of slave owners hundreds of years ago -- though many may argue that some vestiges of slavery still exist in the mindset of the black community. Aggressive marketing by the formula companies in the 1930s and 40s made formula-feeding the choice of the elite -- "the substance for sophisticates" -- white or black. And who doesn't want to be like the rich and famous? That marketing continues to this day, down to the formula company-sponsored bag of goodies you probably received on the way out of the hospital. Then there's something I call the National Geographic factor -- that is, most of the images we see of black women breastfeeding are semi-naked women in Africa whose lives seem so far away from the African-American lifestyle and experience.

"'Breastfeeding is for poor people,' my mom once said to me," explains Nicole, a 37-year-old mom from New Jersey, who breastfed two children for a year. "My mom is a very progressive woman, but this was the thinking of her generation. I couldn't believe it."

Breastfeeding Hurts and Takes Too Long

As children of that generation, many modern mothers don't have that breastfeeding legacy or support from their mothers, mothers-in-law, or extended family members. And due to the oversexualization of the breasts, some women have forgotten or are even uncomfortable with using the breast for its actual intended purpose. Go figure! Others worry that their man will complain (please tell him baby comes first). Myths such as "breastfeeding hurts" (truth: only if the baby is not latched properly) or "breastfeeding is too time-consuming" (truth: whipping out a breast is a lot quicker than sterilizing bottles, mixing, measuring, or heating up formula) still linger among black mothers.

Throw in the economic pressures that put many black women back at work soon after delivery, and there's a "why bother" mentality that makes breastfeeding seem more like a challenge and a chore. The results speak for themselves. According to national data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 45% of African-American women breastfed their babies during the early postpartum period, compared to 66% of Hispanic mothers and 68% of white mothers who breastfed during that same period. Of African-American women who do choose to breastfeed, the duration is short, with many discontinuing in the first days after birth, their data shows.

"Before I nursed my son and daughter, none of the women in my family had ever breastfed before," says Kathi Barber, founder of the African-American Breastfeeding Alliance and author of The Black Woman's Guide to Breastfeeding. "But I decided change would start with me when I learned breastfeeding has health benefits for mothers and babies alike."

We Owe It To Ourselves and Our Babies

And while modern white mothers have reclaimed breastfeeding as hip and trendy, with help from outspoken and high-profile celebrity moms like Angelina Jolie, black celebrity mothers are still mostly mum on the topic. As a new generation of confident, empowered black mothers, we owe it to ourselves and our babies to give them breast milk -- the very best. According to the CDC, black babies are twice as likely as white infants to die before their first birthday. A 2001 study in Pediatrics concluded that an increase in African-American breastfeeding rates alone could reduce this disparity. To do so, every black mother needs to become our own celebrity spokesperson (hey, we're beautiful with full lips!) to speak out and speak up to encourage and support breastfeeding in our own sister circles. It begins with you.

What do you think? Discuss in our Community.

next: Mel Gibson's Girlfriend Definitely Pregnant
119 comments so far | Post a comment now
SRW May 18, 2009, 5:12 PM

this is a good article. I am currently breastfeeding. I have a 7mos old. I plan to breastfeed for at least a year or until he gets two teeth one on top and one on bottom(wherein he can bite ;0)
Though i had difficulty in the beginning with latching on. I stuck with it, brought a lactation consultant into our home and it’s been fab ever since. Truthfully i think it’s the most beautiful, natural thing evah…and it’s so cheap.

A May 18, 2009, 5:30 PM


jasmine May 18, 2009, 5:36 PM

i am a mother of two who is currently breastfeeding my daughter. i fed my son until he was 14 mos. i feel that so many black (esp. single) moms have to do soooo much that they don’t feel that they can take the time and make the sacrifice of breastfeeding, even for a couple of months. society tells you that formula is better than breast as well. i can’t tell you how many times people turned their nose up at me doing the most natural thing a mother can do, nurish her child from herself.

nitabelle May 18, 2009, 5:38 PM

This article is great! I had my 1st daughter when I was 18 and wanted to breastfeed her, but my mom discouraged me, telling me that I probably wouldn’t eat properly and that it would be inconvenient. I listened to her & then when I had my 2nd child at 21, I’d planned to breastfeed, but was discouraged again by my mother and husband. I did breastfeed her for about 2 1/2 wks before I let them defeat me. I vowed that if I ever had another child, no one would discourage me! 16 yrs later, with my 2nd husband we had a child and I breastfed him. It is an experience I will never forget and I notice the overall well being of him compared to his older sisters. I am expecting again & due 8/15. She will be breastfed as well. I hope this email encourages other mothers to at least give it a try.

Centella May 18, 2009, 6:12 PM

Yes this is a good article, didn’t know the history behind it all. However, when I nursed, my baby latched on correctly but it still hurt.

Lauren May 19, 2009, 12:08 AM

I had twin girls 8 months ago and I was completely committed to breastfeeding them as long as possible. I think the main reason, which is not mentioned in the article, that Black women don’t breastfeed or stop earlier is because many of our babies are being born into what could be considered a stressed situation. Although I was blessed enough to have my mother, not having their dad in the home made a huge difference. Breastfeeding successfully for an extended period of time requires the support - emotional and physical - of the partner. Whether its encouragement, bringing you water, or adjusting pillows so you can nurse comfortably, breastfeeding is practically impossible if you’re doing it by yourself. The proportion of black women bringing baby home by themselves is directly linked to the number of black women who are not breastfeeding…

mom-squared May 19, 2009, 10:22 AM

I didn’t breast feed my older children. I was young and as dumb as a box of hammers and didn’t have support though I asked for breast-feeding help in the hospital. This was 19 years ago and hospitals were handing out free formula like they had made a deal with the formula companies which I imagine is like making a deal with the devil.

My new baby, I’m breast-feeding though I do supplement with formula. I don’t get much looks as I live in one of these hippie-dippie nabes, lol. Whenever someone does my “f-u look”. I think unfortunately breast-feeding moms, especially Black moms, will need to get tough and stand up to their family, friends, nosey-a&& people regarding their breast-feeding choice. Even if only you can muster is thinking about giving them the finger. LOL

Anonymous May 19, 2009, 10:50 AM

Slavery? Oh please. It’s time to burn that broken crutch! Get over it! It didn’t happen to YOU. The problem isn’t because of things that happened long ago, it’s because of where things stand right now. Yummy Mummy above is right. It’s a matter of education and culture, or maybe education VS. culture.

B. Aidara May 19, 2009, 11:01 AM

Perhaps one of the reasons why many A.A. women do not/refuse to breast feed their children is because many of the mothers are barely adults mentally and physically. The logic made above makes sense to a mature adult, but it may not make sense to a 15 or 18 year old teen who thinks that she knows everything. I am sure that if more A.A. women had children at a more emotional/mentally mature stage they would breast feed thier children. P.S. I believe that men should be exposed to and taught the benefits of breast feeding as well, so that when they mate with a woman and she gives birth they can put pressure on her to breastfeed. Receiving support from a mate, especially when one is mentally/emotionally immature, could be the determing factor of whether a teen mom will breastfeed her child or not.

Celestine May 19, 2009, 12:11 PM

As an African-American mother of 4, I breastfed the last two children, and I must tell everyone it is a very rewarding experience. The closeness between mother and child is different then giving a bottle. I wish that I had breastfed the two older children as well. The formula that they have out now in my opinion is not for the children born in the United States but for those children born in underdeveloped countries. The bodies of our children are developing at a much faster rate then needed and obesity is rampant.

Allison May 19, 2009, 1:20 PM

Breast is best! I would never give my baby formula, which includes corn syrup in its ingredients. I never got why poor people don’t breastfeed more, I always hear them complain about how expensive formula is, well, breast milk is free!

Mashaun  May 19, 2009, 8:32 PM

I think the article was interesting and informative to say the least. I breast/formula fed my son the first 8 mnths of his life. I worked off and on, and the time I wasn’t employed I almost exclusively breast feed. By the time I started my new career, my son made a natural progression off my breast, and now the only milk he drinks is soy milk. I am fortunate that his father was around and that I had a supportive mother who breast fed all of her 5 children. Moral of the story, breast is best but do what u can with the support and knowledge given to u.And yes I am African American.

Chika May 20, 2009, 11:50 PM

I would somewhat disagree with this article. Women in africa, mostly, breastfeed. I can speak from personal experience as being Nigerian. I believe the author of there article should be more specific about their research.

A guy May 21, 2009, 8:43 PM

The article mentioned what the father might think about it. I’m not a father yet, but I will certainly support the way babies are supposed to be fed instead of processed cow’s milk loaded with chemicals.

Although I can’t speak for all males, this is me.

TC  May 22, 2009, 2:09 AM

Anonymous, this is why some black folk are the way they are. Stereotypical comments such as the one you made. Not all black women get free formula, in fact, my mother work two jobs and had to buy hers. She worked to support the seven of us and I am proud to say that she instilled a work ethic in us all.

B May 22, 2009, 11:32 AM

Love it! Way to educate the masses Kimberly. I’m dedicated to breastfeeding and have done it with both of my children. It was much easier than bottle-feeding, even when I had to pump at work. Pumping at work turned out to be surprisingly easy and gave me time during the day to reflect on being a mom and how much I love my children. It’s definitely been worth the effort. Don’t shy away from this opportunity to bond with your children and make them and yourself healthier. I can’t even begin to tell you how much better brestfeeding has made me feel - I also think it helps to prevent/combat postpartum depression (this is my opinion). Go forth my sisters and brestfeed - even if it’s only for a while.

JustMe May 25, 2009, 4:54 PM

I never breastfed my kid and she turned out fine. She didn’t get sick as much as the kids whose moms breastfed them. So much for the immunity theory.

peachy one June 1, 2009, 12:14 AM

Excellent article, Ms. Allers. it is fantastic that you cover the historical aspect of the breastfeeding story. I relate to the facts cited, for although I have no knowledge of my slave ancestors, both my African American grandmothers, whom I knew personally, did domestic work for Caucasian families in the 1930s. Their duties included breastfeeding their bosses’ children while their own children remained home without adult supervision. This was typical for that time period and their region, and much of the country. It is not far-fetched to assume that most senior citizen politicians were likely breastfed by African American women, since that was the norm for upper class people, and continued to be so well into the 1970s in this country. Breastfeeding, which had been the “only game in town”, fell out of fashion with the next few generations, due to the onslaught of the formula companies, so the art was lost. The rest is history. How ironic, that the very demographic group that used to be the breastfeeding pros of this nation, is now the group with the lowest breastfeeding statistics. Many of the poster’s comments above reflect the power of the formula industry to influence people’s very value system, with the individuals not even recognizing the manipulation. This is analagous to the cigarette industry convincing women that consumption of their product represents their exercise of freedom, a la, “You’ve come a long way, baby”. Because you lack the information and background to make the connection makes it no less valid. I would support the perogative of any mother to make whatever decision regarding breastfeeding that suits her and her family. At the same time, it is also indisputable that from the perspective of the infant alone, breastfeeding is the better choice by a landslide. The African American community is in dire need of the facts, but this is yet one more area in which the disparity between communities is the size of the Grand Canyon. And the African American community has the infant mortality rate, the obesity and diabetes rates, academic performance gaps, etc. to show for it. Lack of breastfeeding is not the only cause, but is one of many causes. Choosing to breastfeed your offspring is one more way to demonstrate one’s committment to Black parenting and to our children’ s best interest.

peachy one June 1, 2009, 12:56 AM

Speaking of the influence of the formula industry, I recently attended, a baby shower where I related to the mother of a nursing newborn, that I had breastfeed my son until he weaned himself exactly on his fourth birthday. She, of all people, called me a “closet breastfeeder”. Since I was not well acquainted with her, I did not dignify her ignorance with a response. I needed no one’s approval for my decision, not even my husband’s, although it helped. That mother lacked a historical and global perspective. The U.S. “experts’” recommendation to breastfeed for (only) one year is to accomodate our society’s lifestyle and cultural norms regarding body image, self-centeredness, the victorian / pornographic dichotomy, and finally the formula industry’s influence on such experts. That mother also had four or more children, and so was naturally not as able to devote as much individual attention as I could to my one child, even though I worked full time. And worldwide four years is well within the normal range of length of breastfeeding term. The nature of babies has not changed much over time, only societal norms.
Ironically, at the baby shower there were countless images of baby bottles; but none of breastfeeding. And breastfeeding past age two is not as rare as people are led to believe. It’s just that at older ages children do not have the need to breastfeed outside of the home, since they are eating a variety of foods. At the end of the breastfeeding term most children only nurse before bedtime.
Ladies, please remember that we can have different priorities and choices without the need to berate and belittle one another. If we are confident of our own motives, then we can be more supportive of each other.

sandra June 15, 2009, 3:13 PM

So, I would like to know if your research revealed the health rate of infants (black and white) during the 30s and 40s as it related to formula. Your research seems to point to whites as being the rich who could afford this nutritional formula and blacks being too poor to take advantage of this benefit. Were white babies at risk while on the formula, and weren’t blacks breast feeding their babies the healthier breast milk? While growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I recall most of my aunts (African American women) breast feeding their babies.

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