From Mrs. To Mommy: Boosting African-American Nursing Success

By Dr. Harvey Karp

“Breast is best” is not just a slogan invented by hippies. From a totally scientific POV, breast milk is absolutely the real deal. Thank goodness we have formula, in case a mom can’t or chooses not to breastfeed, but there is no question that formula is just a corporation’s best guess at imitating what mother nature has carefully designed over the past… let’s say… million years!

Breast milk has scores of nutrients especially designed for an infant’s growing body and brain. This milk is literally alive with antibodies and tons of white blood cells to fight off infection. In the first days after birth, it even contains as many infection-fighting cells as can be found in an adult’s blood!

For these reasons and many more–working to increase national breastfeeding rates has been a major U.S. health goal for decades. In fact, it is such an important public initiative that the entire month of August is dedicated every year as National Breastfeeding Month. And, nestled within this month-long celebration is a very important campaign from August 25 to 31, Black Breastfeeding Week.

Recent CDC data shows that only 59 percent of black women have ever breastfed versus 75 percent of white women. By the six-month mark, only 35 percent are still breastfeeding. That’s a huge gap! And it should be a very important public health concern. Nursing lowers the risk of SIDS by about 50 percent. That is an urgently needed benefit for African-American babies who are at risk of SIDS each year, which is double or even triple the amount seen in their Caucasian counterparts.

Breastfeeding doesn’t just decrease infant mortality rates, it can help prevent other health problems like upper respiratory infections, Type II Diabetes and childhood obesity, which is seen to be prevalent among African-Americans, according to statistics.  

Nursing a baby helps the mama, too! Women can significantly lower their risk of ovarian and breast cancer by breastfeeding, with longer periods of nursing receiving lowered risks.

In the past, African-American women had a lower risk of breast cancer than white women, but that gap has closed. And that’s extra trouble for women of color because they have a much higher mortality if they do develop breast tumors. The American Cancer Society published a finding in 2012 that the risk of dying from this disease is 42 percent higher in African-American women.

Calming Crying and Getting Sleep Boosts Nursing Success

Persistent crying and exhaustion are the top reasons moms abandon nursing. Studies show that exhausted moms are more likely to get depressed (which is seen to reduce breastfeeding rates by 50 percent) and develop creeping doubts about the quality and adequacy of their milk.

That’s why a personal mission of mine has been helping new parents master the skills needed to calm their baby’s fussiness and get more sleep. Over the past 12 years, my team at Happiest Baby has trained thousands of educators in dozens of countries to teach new parents the soothing sleep techniques called the 5 S’s. These five simple steps include swaddling, the side or stomach position, shushing, swinging and sucking– which is described in our video and book as The Happiest Baby on the Block. These methods often reduce infant crying, boost sleep, and even promote parental confidence and breastfeeding success.

Our educators work in programs supporting women of color all across the U.S., from regular hospitals to military bases and teen parent clinics to WIC programs. And for several years, Happiest Baby classes have been taught in New York City’s Harlem Children’s Zone, the nation’s preeminent model for breaking the cycle of poverty as part of their Baby College and Father Support curriculum.

But, all of this good work, of which I am so proud, is not enough. There are many other reasons we need to help support and promote #BlackBreastfeedingWeek, like cultural disparities, lacking diversity among leaders in the lactation field, and a minimal support within communities–more of which is touched on within the Black Breastfeeding Week website. Furthermore, the fact that black mothers are nine times more likely to be offered formula by hospitals than white mothers according to Jennifer Hahn-Holbrook, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Chapman University, Co-Author of the study, “Racial and Ethnic Differences in Breastfeeding.”

Where to Get Breastfeeding Advice

New mamas, from the beginning of time and from all parts of the world have relied on family and community support to succeed at breastfeeding their children. While mothers can look to their experienced friends or doctors for guidance, there are also professional breastfeeding consultants who can help, and organizations like La Leche League who have lots of information and can help you find a local group near you. There are also organizations specifically dedicated to reducing racial disparities in breastfeeding like the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association. Additional support is available to low-income mothers from the national Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

Fortunately, through the dedicated work of many public and private agencies, the separation is shrinking. From 2000 to 2008, breastfeeding among African-Americans increased from 47 to 59 percent with nursing periods of at least six months in that population has more than doubled, increasing from 17 to 35 percent.

That is great news for babies. But, we cannot declare victory, yet. We need to continue increasing the support African-American mothers get in the hospital, the doctor’s office, the workplace, and the community until we totally close that gap.

Please help spread the word!

Happiest Baby will be raising awareness all week on InstagramFacebook and Twitter. Follow us and share your thoughts and photos in the comments section of our #BlackBreastfeedingWeek posts. We’d love to hear from you and celebrate your breastfeeding successes, or help with any questions or concerns!

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