NEWS

How Systemic Racism Contributes to Less Breastfeeding Amongst Black Mothers

Black woman nursing daughter in living room

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Key Takeaways

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants exclusively be breastfed for the first six months. But studies show that only 69% of Black mothers breastfeed, compared to 85% of white moms.
  • At the heart of this disparity is systemic racism in health care, such as the erroneous belief that Black women prefer bottle feeding over breastfeeding.
  • Making assumptions about Black mothers based on their race makes them less likely to receive crucial breastfeeding resources.
  • Experts say change is required on a societal and political level to support Black moms who want to breastfeed.

For as long as the U.S. government has collected data on breastfeeding rates, there’s been a significant racial disparity.

In 2019, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked at data from the National Immunization Survey-Child relating to mothers who gave birth in 2015, and found that. overall, 83% of U.S. mothers breastfed their babies at birth. But when the researchers broke the numbers down by race, they found that 85% of white mothers said they breastfed, while only 69% of Black mothers did.

Diane L. Spatz, PhD, RN-BC, FAAN

One cannot ignore the systemic racism in health care or the fact that formula companies targeted African American women. Health care providers do not give African American families a fair chance. If you were not breastfed and none of your family members ever were, how do you know this is something you can do?

— Diane L. Spatz, PhD, RN-BC, FAAN

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, published in The Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing, identifies the best strategies and practices to improve breastfeeding in the Black community.

Insight from subject matter experts (SMEs) was compared to focus group data with Black mothers, who identified factors that both helped and hindered breastfeeding initiation.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants exclusively be breastfed for the first six months, followed by a combination of breastfeeding and the introduction of new foods until at least 12 months of age.

Implicit Racial Bias

Due to implicit bias, there's a widespread belief that Black mothers prefer bottle feeding over breastfeeding. The Penn Nursing paper confirms this, discussing research that has shown that Black moms in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are less likely to receive breastfeeding counseling than white mothers in the same program.

The WIC program provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Co-author of the Penn Nursing study, Diane L. Spatz, PhD, RN-BC, FAAN, professor of perinatal nursing and Helen M. Shearer term professor of nutrition at Penn Nursing, says that some medical providers make assumptions about patients’ interest in breastfeeding based on their race, ethnicity, and income. This can mean Black mothers are less likely to receive resources for breastfeeding.

Spatz adds that Black patients may not have grown up in a community where breastfeeding was a common practice, and may not have been informed of the health benefits of breastfeeding, compared to using formula.

"One cannot ignore the systemic racism in health care or the fact that formula companies targeted African American women," she says. "Health care providers do not give African American families a fair chance. If you were not breastfed and none of your family members ever were, how do you know this is something you can do?"

Jessica Madden, MD, IBCLC

Children should be educated about the benefits and basics of breastfeeding and breastmilk at a young age. This will help them to understand how breastfeeding works and the importance of supporting breastfeeding mothers well before they become parents themselves. It’s especially important for males to receive breastfeeding education, so that they can support their partners who are breastfeeding.

— Jessica Madden, MD, IBCLC

Talking About Breastfeeding

"We need to talk about breastfeeding all the time," Spatz says. "It should be in middle school and high school curriculums, it should be discussed at every prenatal appointment, and all families should be given equal information and resources."

Jessica Madden, MD, board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps, agrees. "Children should be educated about the benefits and basics of breastfeeding and breastmilk at a young age," she says.

Madden adds, "This will help them to understand how breastfeeding works and the importance of supporting breastfeeding mothers well before they become parents themselves. It’s especially important for males to receive breastfeeding education, so that they can support their partners who are breastfeeding."

Some research suggests that breastfed babies face a lower risk of developing ear, respiratory, or digestive tract infections, obesity, diabetes, and asthma. Several studies also indicate that babies who are not breastfed are more vulnerable to health issues like pneumonia, diarrhea, and infection.

International board certified lactation consultant Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, LCCE, says there is inherent racial bias in the birthing world, period. "Birth impacts breast-feeding and the racial bias leads to complications in birth and lowered breastfeeding rates," she says.

As a lactation consultant, she has supported many Black people who are the first in their family to breastfeed in generations. "I suggest they create a plan and tell everyone in their immediate circle that they are breastfeeding and would like their support," she explains. "If there are people who are unsupportive, I encourage people to set limits on these people and redirect their often good intentions."

Leigh Anne O'Connor, IBCLC, LCCE

Many Black women work in industries that do not allow for paid time off, no mandated maternity leave, or a living wage where one may have to work more than one job. It's hard to breastfeed without appropriate accommodations.

— Leigh Anne O'Connor, IBCLC, LCCE

"Representation is important," adds Madden. "Images of people of color breastfeeding in the media would be helpful."

Investing in Healthcare Providers For Black Moms and Babies

The majority of doulas, lactation consultants, and other specialists trained to help mothers navigate pregnancy and breastfeeding in the U.S. are white, says Madden. "There are not enough Black birth and postpartum specialists, or lactation consultants, to support black women through pregnancy, labor and delivery, breastfeeding, and the postpartum period," she says.

"We need to invest in the training of Black doulas, lactation consultants, postpartum care specialists, and health care providers for Black mothers and babies," she says.

This is being done on a local/regional level in certain cities, such as Cleveland, Ohio, with the creation of both Birthing Beautiful Communities and First Year Cleveland. But it needs to be a nationwide effort.

Jessica Madden, MD, IBCLC

We need to invest in the training of Black doulas, lactation consultants, postpartum care specialists, and health care providers for Black mothers and babies.

— Jessica Madden, MD, IBCLC

Political Change

The long, complicated history of disparity in breastfeeding rates in the Black community involves issues relating to the workplace. "Many Black women work in industries that do not allow for paid time off, no mandated maternity leave, or a living wage where one may have to work more than one job," O'Connor says. "It's hard to breastfeed without appropriate accommodations."

For lasting political, advocacy efforts to revamp Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and maternity leave policies need to be increased, Dr. Madden adds.

"Ideally, all mothers should be offered 3-6 months of fully paid maternity leave, no matter where they are employed and regardless of whether they work part-time or full-time," she says. "A large percentage of Black mothers are single moms, and therefore have to work outside of the home to support their families. When working mothers have short maternity leaves (or no maternity leave at all), it can be nearly impossible to breastfeed without a lot of support."

What This Means For You

If you want to breastfeed, look for a community of other breastfeeding parents, and ask your partner to support you. A good place to start is breastfeeding support groups such as La Leche League and Breastfeeding USA.

Organizations that support Black moms and their families include Black Women's Health Imperative,  Black Mamas Matter Alliance, and  Black Mother’s Breastfeeding Association. Check out Sista Midwife for a directory of Black midwives and doulas.

If you want to empower and support the Black community, you can make a charitable donation via Charity Navigator, which provides an in-depth look at nonprofits that support Black moms and their families.

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6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Beauregard J et al. Racial disparities in breastfeeding initiation and duration among U.S. infants born in 2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). 2019 Aug. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6834a3

  2. Hinson T et al. Subject matter experts identify health equity concerns in breastfeeding for African American women. The Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing. 2020 Dec. doi:10.1097/JPN.0000000000000486

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. March 2012.

  4. USDA Food & Nutrition Service. WIC eligibility requirements. June 19, 2020.

  5. Silvers KM et al. Breastfeeding protects against current asthma up to 6 years of age. The Journal of Pediatrics. 2012 Jan. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2011.11.055

  6. Hengstermann S et al. Formula feeding is associated with increased hospital admissions due to infections among infants younger than 6 months in Manila, Philippines. Journal of Human Lactation. 2010 Feb. doi: 10.1177/0890334409344078