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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
Qbvemypp June 26, 2009, 4:48 PM

wzrg2q comment5 ,

Amanda June 30, 2009, 3:58 PM

I really doubt it has as much to do with slave mentality as it is the fact that fewer black women can afford to take maternity leave to nurse their children on a regular basis. Black women have to return to work sooner and I’m sure after a long day at work are too tired to take the time to breastfeed. Lack of education of the benefits of breastfeeding is also a contributing factor. This article is ridiculous, especially since most people having children now know nothing of the slave days

Angela July 8, 2009, 1:23 PM

I really rather think that not breastfeeding is an American idea, not just African American. While we were stationed overseas no one ever batted an eye at my nursing my child and in fact I was even complemented on it. When we moved back to the states that was when I began to feel selfconcious about it. My husband and I are hispanic and his family was definitely vocal on my nursing and for how long I should do it and they were definitely uncomfortable when I did it around them. and my own mother was surprised at my wanting to. Thankfully my husband was very supporitve and encouraging.

Jacque September 28, 2009, 8:55 AM

Awesome article. I am African American/Black. I breastfed 5, I had 6 one passed. My oldest I did not breastfeed, because I was influence to not to by former friend. I did not have anyone to educate me about breastfeeding. My 5 children I breastfed for about 6 months or less, 2 years, and 4 years. I can tell you that it is awesome! My children thank God has not miss school any school for the last 3 yeears perfect attendance. with my oldest she is a little slow and she gets sick often.

devchushka December 23, 2009, 1:17 PM

Да уж. Как говорится в устоявшемся выражении:
Это мы бросаем пить в том возрасте, в котором во всем мире только начинают.

Nikah January 5, 2010, 8:10 PM

the case maybe that more black women are actually breastfeeding but will not let survey personnel know so that they can still qualify for WIC

Anonymous February 1, 2010, 10:53 PM

Omg…can we stop blaming slavery for every epicdemic in the black community? Bottomline: breatfeeding is a personal choice. I’m so tired of breastfeeding mama’s looking down on non-brestfeeding ones. There is even a website that bashes celebrity moms that don’t breastfeed! Please keep in mind that not all mothers CAN breastfeed. Somehow, they still manage to bond with their babies. Go figure! Also, formula-fed babies are not automatically doomed! Come on now. I have two children. One was breastfed while the other was formula fed. They are both healthy, unusually intelligent, and happy! Both my husband & I have very strong bonds with both kids. For any moms out there that didn’t breastfeed, it’s okay. You’re still a great mom!

May March 26, 2010, 3:26 PM

I think that this article was insightful. I’m early twenties black mother. I’m breastfeeding my 8 month old son and plan to continue till his first bday. I agree what many have said, you have to get support. Many people advise me that nursing hurts or inconvenient. But I truly believe that the issue at hand is that it’s a lack of education in the black community. My husband and I did extensive research about nursing while I was pregnant and we decided that nursing was the best decision. My child has never been sick and I know it’s due to me nursing. My child is often on public transportation and even at times in childcare during the swine flu crisis and never was affected. Formula is pushed to mother consistently and it’s extremely difficult not take the “so call” easier route and make a formula bottle. The health benefits for your child are sooooooo worth it. Your baby is receiving your immune system and this will protect your baby from diseases. Breastfeeding also helps mothers as well, mothers that breastfeed are less likely to get breast cancer. The bond you will have with your baby is also an increase benefit.

chase online banking October 18, 2010, 1:09 PM

Thanks for sharing this helpful info!

Community Service Ideas For High School November 25, 2010, 12:15 AM

Sometimes people are layered like that. There’s something totally different underneath than what’s on the surface. But sometimes, there’s a third, even deeper level, and that one is the same as the top surface one. Like with pie.

Hemorrhoid Cure November 27, 2010, 2:46 PM

Excellent reading. Thank you, I absolutely enjoy reading your post.

Shafia M. Monroe November 28, 2010, 4:30 PM

I loved breastfeeding and nursed all seven of my children. I think the USA is the bigger problem, as they have sexualized the breast in this country; making it socially uncomfortable for US citzens to embrace breastfeeding as normal. In this country the breast sells cars and things, the message is they don’t feed babies. As consumers we have to figure out how we can address that as we continue to promote “breastfeeding as the best feeding. “

I would like to see more black moms and dads use midwives and doulas of color for hospital births because they help moms successful breastfeed beyond six-months.

I think with only 12.4 % African Americans in the US, we are showing a good number of breastfeeding moms. You can’t compare 12.4% with 74.8% to measure if we are successfully breastfeeding compared to white women, whose counting anyways?


Shafia M. Monroe, CM
International Center for Traditional Childbearing

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Your joking, right?

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The Constitution gives every American the inalienable right to make a damn fool of himself.

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Mariel Henn December 20, 2010, 7:34 AM

I’d have to accede with you on this. Which is not something I usually do! I love reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

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