Op-ed "Why We Need a Black Breastfeeding Week" at the top, with an image of the author at the bottom.

Op-ed: Why We Need a Black Breastfeeding Week

August is National Breastfeeding Month, and in the U.S., there’s also a time to commemorate and uplift Black Breastfeeding Week during the last week of the month. As with many similar commemorations, some might question the need for a separate event based on race. All babies can benefit from breastfeeding. Why the need for Black Breastfeeding Week?

Let me answer that question with one word: history. As a Tulsa, Oklahoma native, I’ve spent the months since the 100th anniversary of my hometown’s race massacre considering how tragedies in our past shape our present when it comes to healthcare in America.

Some of my work as Executive Director of the Tulsa Birth Equity Initiative focuses on helping communities understand our history and how we got to this place in our healthcare journey. It’s my job to increase access to Birth Workers of color as a way to address health inequities in Tulsa and build healthier families. 

Health and employment disparities in medical care

Black Breastfeeding Week organizers highlight that 75% of white women have breastfed versus only 58.9% of Black women, with a lack of diversity in the lactation field identified as a key part of the issue. Sadly, health disparities we see today are the result of decades of Black loss and missed opportunities for justice.

For many women, much of the first practical advice they receive around breastfeeding comes in a healthcare setting, at a clinic, or in the hospital shortly after delivery. Though advice and guidance from trusted family and friends is crucial, any problems or deficits are usually diagnosed by a doctor, midwife, or nurse.

For Black women, the chances that this medical practitioner will be a person of color are slim. As of 2019, only 2.6% of the nation’s doctors identified as Black or African-American, and in 2020 these groups accounted for a mere 7.3% of students enrolled in medical school. 

But do you know why these numbers are so low? Some might conclude that Black Americans can’t cut it in higher education, or they simply don’t choose to study medicine at the same rate. History tells a different story.

For example, have you ever heard of The Flexner Report? Also referred to as “Medical Education in the United States and Canada,” it was published in 1910 by American educator Abraham Flexner, with backing from the Carnegie Foundation. The Flexner Report has been credited for transforming and standardizing medical education. It called for significant improvements to medical education, higher admission standards, adherence to scientific methods in research and practice, and oversight by state licensure boards.

Racist beliefs in Flexner Report led to lack of Black hospitals, doctors

However, while it may have helped standardize medical care, The Flexner Report exacted a steep cost for medical schools without the funds to implement the changes.

Five of seven medical schools committed to educating Black physicians closed as a result of The Flexner report. A study published in August 2020 estimated that if those five schools had remained open, an additional 35,315 Black physicians would have entered the workforce in the years that followed, producing a 29% increase in the number of graduating African-American physicians in 2019 alone.

In addition, the medical schools that remained opened were unlikely to admit Black students due to Flexner’s beliefs about Black people and their role in medical education. In November of 2020, The Association of American Medical Colleges renamed their prestigious Abraham Flexner award due to his racist and sexist ideologies. In Chapter 14 of The Flexner Report, titled “The Medical Education of the Negro,” Flexner states that Black people should be trained in sanitation because he believed, “A well-taught negro sanitarian will be immensely useful; an essentially untrained negro wearing an M.D. degree is dangerous,” Flexner wrote.

Where did this lead? A report published in June 2020 by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a worsened doctor shortage of between 54,100 and 193,000 by 2033.

Changing outcomes

This all equals bad outcomes for Black patients. We know that a diverse workforce, training, and cultural competence are essential aspects of quality healthcare. Studies confirm that communities of color benefit from being seen by doctors of color.

The foundation of the U.S. Medical system was never intended to address our needs, support our families, repair our wounds and nurture our children. In other words, the system works beautifully for the people it was designed to support, and everybody else is on their own. Many people will overlook the role Abraham Flexner played in shaping the trajectory of the physician workforce, but if we continually fail to examine these lessons, we will struggle to move forward.

To solve a problem, we have to understand it. The Flexner Report may not be as violent as many of the historic crimes committed against Black people. Yet, its implications are still being felt today in ways both obvious and subtle, from the shortage of Black doctors to the appalling Black maternal mortality rate.

As we consider the solutions, it will take reflection and discomfort if we want to get at the nuances of the inequities we see today. So, yes, we need a Black Breastfeeding Week and so much more.

This op-ed was written by LaBrisa Williams, the Executive Director of the Tulsa Birth Equity Initiative, a HealthConnect One community-based doula replication site. LaBrisa is a 2021 Aspen Institute Healthy Communities Fellow. This article was originally published in The Black Wall Street Times.

12 Organizations Supporting & Celebrating Black Moms Breastfeeding

In celebration of Black Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 25 through Aug. 31), we compiled a list of organizations and online groups that provide breastfeeding support for moms. If you’re an expectant mom who wants to learn more about lactation or you’ve already delivered your baby, it’s important for you to get the support you need to breastfeed successfully.

There are many health benefits for breastfeeding moms and their babies including antibodies found in breast milk. These antibodies help babies fight off bacteria/viruses and lowers the risk of asthma, allergies, and respiratory illnesses. Breastfeeding moms also lower their chances of breast cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Recently, data on breastfeeding children indicated that “83% of U.S. mothers breastfed their babies at birth. However, when the research was broken down by race 85% of white mothers breastfed more than Black mothers who only breastfed 69%.”

This disparity is attributed to systematic racism within hospital networks who don’t encourage breastfeeding initiation to Black moms and often promote formula. The other obstacle moms face is dealing with the possible stigma of being shamed in public for breastfeeding their child. These things can impact a mom’s breastfeeding confidence and discourage her to breastfeed.

We honor and support organizations and online groups who are working hard to show off Black families representing breastfeeding. We support them in their efforts to promote and protect Black families and their desire to provide only the best for Black families.

Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association

Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE)

African American Breastfeeding Network

Black Breastfeeding Week

BirthMatters Spartanburg

United States Breastfeeding Committee

National Association of Professional Peer Lactation Counselors

MoDaBa (Fatima Muhammad Roque)

Early Dawn Birthing Services (Chelesa Presley)

Blooming Moon Midwifery Services (Toni Hill)   

Northeast Mississippi Birthing Project (Natasha Enos)

Southern Birth Justice

(Photo credit: Flint Chaney 08)

Power of Breastfeeding Reflection

I had my son and the hospital told me to go straight to the WIC office and that’s what I did.  I needed to figure out how to feed him. I can recall when I got to the WIC office they asked me for insurance and proof of income. I didn’t have any of this paperwork and they told me they were unable to give me any formula for him. I sat in the waiting room and began to cry. The lactation counselor, asked me why was I crying? I said I couldn’t feed my baby and they (WIC) wouldn’t give me any milk for him. She said to me: “you can feed your baby!” I asked, how?  She pointed to my breasts and began to teach me in the waiting area how to breastfeed my child. That is how my breastfeeding journey began for me and my child. In my community, no one I knew breastfed.

If the lactation counselor was not there that day, I would have gone home, and my grandmother probably would’ve given my son Carnation milk and Karo Syrup or Similac with iron, which is also a staple in the African American community. Sometimes, I would feed my baby in the bathroom because I felt embarrassed about breastfeeding at home when relatives were present. I did not have the education or support which is widely available today. I thought of my breast as sexual objects which is another reason it was uncomfortable for me to nurse in front of others. However, today I recommend breastfeeding with the same confidence and assurance as the lactation consultant did with me!

Infant Mortality Rates (IMR) is much higher among African Americans 4.7% Non- Hispanic White we need to give our babies a chance and it starts by putting them to our breast. If you need help learning to breastfeed your child a breastfeeding support counselor can help you latch your baby on today. Here is a list of organizations that are providing breastfeeding support or you can send us an inquiry at info@healthconnectone.org and we can refer you. – Tikvah Wadley, HC One Lead Doula

Black woman breastfeeding old black and white image

Black Breastfeeding after a History of Trauma

by Mekha McGuire

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In the conversation on Reproductive Justice and Birthing Equity, the climate is one of immense urgency.

With public breastfeeding now legal in all 50 states as of July this year, there’s a lot of momentum around birth equity, breastfeeding, and the rights of mothers in both the private and public spheres, but with every institutional reform and public shift, the question begs to be asked: Where does this leave Black mothers?

In the context of reproductive justice and the history of our communities in this country, the answer is non-extractable from the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the practice of slave breeding in the Americas. This Black Breastfeeding Week, like many others in the past, meets the crucible forged by white supremacy, medical racism, and heteropatriarchal state violence against the bodies of Black mothers and their children.

The history of the controlled reproductive capacities of Black and afro descended women is the foundation on which this country is built. The legacies of terror, oppression, and gendered dehumanization still impact the ancestors of those who survived the vast grief of enslavement. The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities reported in 2017 that 64.3% of Black American parents breastfed, in comparison to 81.9% of Latino and 81.5% of White parents breastfeeding. Now, those statistics can look very different when breaking down the racial variations within the Latino statistic (as people can be both Black and Latino as well as any race and Latino.) The enduring legacies of slavery are part of this equation.

Certified Nurse Midwife Stephanie Devane-Johnson of Greensboro, North Carolina conducted research as to why Black women weren’t breastfeeding and found that, “The echoes of slave women being forced to give up their milk still resounded. And black women didn’t talk to their sisters, daughters and granddaughters about how to feed their babies; the bottle was just assumed. And for some women, breast-feeding was a ‘white thing.’”

Devane-Johnson’s Findings

As part of her research for a doctoral degree at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Nursing, Devane-Johnson held focus groups to ask Black women about breast-feeding. She presented her research at the annual UNC-Chapel Hill Minority Health Conference, held recently at the Friday Center. Devane-Johnson described how she recruited 39 women ranging in age from 18 to 89 years old and asked them what conversations they’d had with family members. Turns out, many hadn’t had conversations at all.

“In the formula-feeding group, it was just assumed,” she said. Some women who had breast-fed said it was a topic that couldn’t be addressed in their families. “If they did breast-feed, they didn’t breast-feed at, say, their aunt’s house, they would tell them, ‘You can’t do that in my house. Breast-feeding is nasty,’” Devane-Johnson said. “You don’t talk about ‘boobies,’ because breasts are sometimes seen as sexual and not as functional.”

And then there was the enduring legacy of slavery. “There were some older black women who wanted to disassociate themselves from the past, from slavery and the wet-nursing,” she said, explaining that often young slave women were pressed into giving their milk to white infants. “That image of a ‘mammy’ when people would say that,” reads one of the quotes Devane-Johnson collected from her focus groups. “It did conjure up those pictures of the women feeding the white babies and all that.” And the cultural memory has been passed down even to younger women. “It really was amazing…. In my 18-to-29-year-old breast-feeding group, there was a young lady in there who said, ‘Yeah, the white men used to steal the slaves’ milk,’” she said. Devane-Johnson explained that often slave women had to be away from their own children, at the cost of their own children’s lives.

“A lot of slave babies died during slavery because they weren’t breast-fed. They were fed concoctions of dirty water and cows milk,” she said. Meanwhile, those children’s mothers were giving white children their milk. And women reported that oral histories have been reinforced by modern technology. “These pictures are all on social media,” Devane-Johnson said. “Then someone gets pregnant and people talk about breast-feeding. They’ll say, ‘You don’t have to do that anymore.’”

A study on Enhancing Breastfeeding Rates Among African American Women by Angela Johnson, Rosalind Kirk, Katherine Lisa Rosenblum, and Maria Muzik included this graphic for mapping and understanding the various factors that influence breastfeeding in Black American mothers. (Fig 1.)

Within the realm of influences that contribute to the comparative low numbers for breastfeeding amongst Black Women are slavery, racism, implicit bias, and discrimination from care/treatment providers. What creates a more nuanced and complex take on this data is also the influence that mental health and personal history have on the breastfeeding parent. When we consider the material realities and sentiments around mental health that exist inside our community, as well as the structural violence we face, a completely different picture around Breastfeeding is painted.

To center the history of these legacies, material realities, and subjectivities, I talked with a Black mother named Christena, who is based in Washington, D.C. and has a two year old son named Thiago. I wanted to center her experience with Breastfeeding, discuss some of the situations, structures and resources she had in place that made her feel supported and NOT supported, and learn what would make breastfeeding a better experience for her and for other Black mothers in her community.

Christena has been nursing her baby for two years and counting!

She’s a working class mother who has been though the ringer — having been illegally reprimanded for pumping at work, and having nursed through postpartum depression. Hopefully, her truth and her experience dealing with the structural inequalities around feeding her baby and mothering can provide a mirror to support other Black mothers who may be doing really well but need inspiration to go further; or mothers who are struggling with trauma or resource capacities (emotional, financial, and otherwise) and need some honest affirmation in their journey.

Christena Nataren, 27 | Breastfeeding her son Thiago 2 years+

My decision to breastfeed was both a financial and deeply personal choice. I knew breastfeeding was incredibly important to infant health and it lowers rates of infant mortality. The anxiety around keeping a baby alive and thriving was only slightly eased by breastfeeding. I’m thankful for the connection I was able to establish with my baby through breastfeeding. I left my OB/GYN halfway through my pregnancy and opted with a birthing and family center in my area instead. I didn’t feel supported by my OB and that changed when I switched to midwives. Even then, I felt a little hostility from medical professionals and I can only assume it’s because of my race and low income status.

I have a lactation consultant available to me through the birthing center and they offer a lot of help and literature. Outside of the medical structure, I have no support besides my partner. I don’t know anyone that has ever breastfed, so I was met with skepticism from my family. My baby’s birth wasn’t easy and I didn’t feel supported during and labor. The hospital’s lactation consultant was hostile and impatient with my questions. The nurses assigned to me also pressured me to use formula, so I did.

There were many times I wanted to stop, but the convenience and zero cost of nursing was a major factor to continue to nurse my baby.

I suffered an extreme bout of PPD. I suffer from PTSD from CSA (Childhood Sexual Abuse) and it was really hard to associate a sexualized part of my body with functionality. These are no longer parts of my body where I feel shame, but parts of my body that I feel sort of proud of — I have a healthy, bouncy baby that thrives on my breast milk. I feel so much pride in that.

When I had to eventually return to work, I was harassed by management about pumping breast milk at work. I was eventually fired and accused of wage theft over my 15 minute breaks on $2.77 an hour.

My experience with breastfeeding has been traumatic, overall— but I’m still nursing my son at 2 years old. I don’t feel ready to stop nursing and he doesn’t seem ready either, so I’m okay with extended breastfeeding. I’ll be ready to stop when he is. I’m hoping to make my next pregnancy and experience with breastfeeding an infant better than my first experience. I wish I had more emotional support and understanding from both medical professionals as well as coworkers and family members who were purely ignorant on the subject.

I don’t believe Black women are supported enough to breastfeed. Based on my experience, there are no conversations that are had with us from OB/GYNs or other medical professionals. More importantly, there isn’t access to this knowledge.

This inspired me to start a new project to help other mothers. I’m currently working on an app and a website that does the work of mapping out breastfeeding-friendly areas in the DC, Maryland, Virginia area — had I known, I would have ventured out with my baby more. You should be able to feed your baby anywhere you are, but I personally like to know when I’m going to feel safe. That’s where the idea for my project came from.

Christena is an essential part of the community we resist for, support, work with and build with to close these structural trenches. Her story highlights a truth that endures over many centuries of life in diaspora. It’s a truth that propelled our ancestors while they endured inconceivable dehumanization.

Together, our dreams, hopes, resistance, and survival will always drown out the labor of empire to keep us where we are. In the words of Gwendolyn Brooks “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

My hope is that other Black parents who are breastfeeding — and struggling to be in congress with themselves through this time of immense repression — can read these words and be supported.

This Black Breastfeeding Week, let’s uplift breastfeeding LGBTQ parents, and breastfeeding parents who have postpartum depression, mental illness, or traumas, and aren’t routinely represented in birthing community conversations and support models.

#BBW #LoveOnTop


Mekha McGuire’s transdisciplinary labor is informed by her work with Black girls as an educator and community worker, as well as her service as an abortion doula and Black birth equity advocate. Her research and organizing is built on ethnographic and Black feminist frameworks that analyze and center conversations around Black girlhood, collective memory, femme genealogies, Reproductive Justice, solidarity politics and intergenerational gendered trauma within the African diaspora. Ms. McGuire is a leader in HealthConnect One’s Birth Equity Leadership Academy (BELA).

Black Breastfeeding in Philadelphia, a Q&A

In honor of Black Breastfeeding Week, breastfeeding advocate Faith Peterson asks Rudina Jackson, a certified lactation consultant and doula, to share her own experience with breastfeeding.

FP: What has been your experience with breastfeeding? 

RJ: My experience with breastfeeding has been an adventure. I have overcome a lot of nursing difficulties. I have three children, a 4-year-old and 1-year-old twins, all boys. I am breastfeeding all three children.

I practice natural child weaning. When my children are ready to wean, they will. The 4-year-old goes days without wanting to nurse but is still not ready to completely stop, and that is okay. I enjoy breastfeeding, but it is not always enjoyable. But in times of aversion, I remind myself they will only need milk for a short while, and one day they won’t need it at all.

FP: Why was it important for you to breastfeed?

RJ: It is important to me to breastfeed because this is natural and what is healthiest for my children. Breastmilk saves lives and the infant mortality rate in our community is at an all-time high. It is important to me because I want to raise sons who support women and encourage them to breastfeed their own children and to show them there is nothing shameful or nasty about breastfeeding.

FP: What are some of the structural and interpersonal supports that you have in place that make you feel supported?

RJ: My sisters both breastfed until 3.5 years old. They made that decision to breastfeed even though they were never really exposed to breastfeeding. I have always had the support of my sisters and my mother. (I was the only child of my siblings who she breastfed).

My partner has always supported breastfeeding our children, and that’s important to have your spouse support your breastfeeding journey and defend you to those who have never breastfed or are uneducated on breastfeeding . Also, when my oldest was 10 months, a friend added me to an online breastfeeding group, Breastfeeding Support Group for Black Moms. Through this group, I learn so much about breastfeeding and pumping. The group had about 3,000 members at the time, and now it’s over 52,000 members of black women supporting one another in their nursing journey. Also, through this journey, I have become a Lactation Consultant (CLC) and Community Birth Doula and have met many women like Jabina Coleman and Ileana Berrios who are IBCLCs in Philadelphia serving to support and encourage Black and Latina women in breastfeeding.

FP: What are the situations, structures, and resources that make you NOT feel supported?

RJ: Honestly, nothing can make me not feel supported. I had some doubts nursing my oldest in public but those quickly vanished when I realized I would rather argue with a stranger than starve my baby. I went into nursing my twins with the idea that breastfeeding is the only way. Although I struggled in the beginning with latching and not pumping, I was encouraged by my Doula Mia that things would get better and they did.

FP: Were there any times you felt that your current community does not have what you need or needed to make breastfeeding a better experience?

RJ: I do believe that my community lacks education on breastfeeding. This is why I strive to educate women in my community with facts and wisdom on breast milk, so they do not unintentionally hinder their own or another woman’s breastfeeding relationship with incorrect information. Being a mother of twins, I did have a hard time finding other women of color in my direct community that strictly breastfed twins.

FP: Is there anything else you would like to say to encourage a mom who is struggling with breastfeeding?

RJ: You are enough. It’s okay to get frustrated. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, but never quit on your worst day.

Faith Peterson, M.D. is the founder of the Philadelphia Birth Equity Project and a leader in HealthConnect One’s Birth Equity Leadership Academy (BELA).