Cultural Support Needed for Women Who Breastfeed, Plus a Pitchman for Breast Milk

By Christine Cupaiuolo — July 24, 2008

Aisha Qaasim, a civil rights attorney, often advocates on behalf of others.

Today, in an essay published at Women’s eNews, Qaasim takes on the insults hurled at women who breastfeed in public and argues that the negativity surrounding breastfeeding is hurting the health of children and mothers, particularly in African-American families, where the rate of breastfeeding is the lowest.

Women who breastfeed lower their risk of developing uterine cancer, osteoporosis, Type 2 diabetes and breast cancer over their lifetimes.

But the irony is that in today’s ambitious parenting climate — where millions of dollars are being spent on educational toys and organic baby products — breastfeeding as the most important developmental head-start is often neglected.

Among African American women that’s particularly true. In 2004, 74 percent of U.S. women initiated breastfeeding soon after giving birth. Among black women it was 60 percent.

By the time infants reached 6 months of age — a key health target — only 14 percent of U.S. infants were breastfed exclusively. Among black infants it was 7 percent.

Only 36 percent of U.S. babies received breast milk in combination with formula or other foods at 6 months of age. For African American babies make that 29 percent.

Black women are the least likely to breastfeed, even those of us with a college education, health insurance and a nice paying job. African American women across the spectrum breastfeed less than women who have only a high school education, less than women who live below the poverty line and less than adolescent mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control 2004 National Immunization Survey.

It’s not an abstract issue for Qaasim. As a black women, she has weathered overtly racist insults, much of which she could brush off. But Qaasim couldn’t shake a comment she heard while breastfeeding her 2-month-old daughter at a suburban Maryland mall.

“That is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen,” the woman said.

“A nameless woman at a mall was somehow the one to find the insult that I could not toss onto the neat pile of words that would never hurt me. It did hurt. And, these attitudes toward breastfeeding are making our children sick, especially African American children, who are the least likely to get the benefit of mothers’ milk,” writes Qaasim.

And when she complained about the ridicule — which she said almost always came from other women — friends and family didn’t offer much support.

The response is not uncommon. Among the many public obstacles women face with regard to breastfeeding — including a lack of privacy and time to pump breast milk at work and a lack of knowledge concerning laws in most states granting mothers the right to breastfeed in public spaces — discouragement from friends and family is also a major deterrent.

A recently published study of 88 new or soon-to-be mothers, mostly Hispanic and African-American, found that the opinions of family and friends are the most significant factor in determining whether low-income mothers breastfeed their children. The study, titled “Breast-feeding Intentions Among Low-Income Pregnant and Lactating Women,” appeared in the March-April 2008 issue of The American Journal of Health Behavior.

Interestingly, researchers found no statistical relationship between positive attitudes held by pregnant women concerning breastfeeding and their intent to breastfeed. The views of family members closest to them mattered the most. The researchers concluded that education about breastfeeding include the “opinion-shapers” as well as pregnant women.

“In the study, women were most significantly influenced by what they perceived to be the opinions of people close to them such as their husband or partner, siblings, friends and parents,” said Gina Jarman Hill, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Texas Christian University. “Husbands or partners were the most influential.”

Henry Hale gets it. The 25-year-old African-American father of a 3-year-old daughter named Miracle is the first male certified breast-feeding peer counselor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He may even be the first in Illinois (or anywhere?).

“No one knows for sure, because calls to organizations that track this type of thing are met with befuddled silence,” writes Bonnie Miller Rubin in the Chicago Tribune. A photo of Hale is on the Trib’s front page today.

His interest in lactation began after the birth of his now 3-year-old daughter, Miracle, who was born at 24 weeks, weighing only 1 pound, 3 ounces. Hale and Miracle’s mother, Jackie Scott, attended Mother’s Milk Club, a weekly support group for parents of babies in the neonatal intensive-care unit, and learned about the health health benefits of breast feeding.

Although dads may make occasional appearances, Hale never missed a meeting, said Paula Meier, Rush’s director for clinical research and lactation.

“A lot of dads find it repulsive,” she said. “But Henry was just so outspoken and inspiring.”

That’s when Meier had a lightbulb moment: She’d recruit Hale to extol the virtues of breast-feeding — especially to the African-American community, which traditionally nurses at lower rates than other groups. […]

“When I heard all the good things about breast milk,” Hale said, “my first thought was, ‘C’mon, let’s get it out. Let’s get going.’ ”

So Scott started pumping. For the first seven months, Miracle consumed nothing else.

“At the beginning, it was really hard,” Scott said to the group, which meets weekly to discuss every aspect of lactation, from inadequate milk supply to how nipple-piercing affects the process. “There were a couple of days when I just wanted to stop. But Henry really helped.”

How Hale assisted isn’t immediately clear given the basic anatomy involved. However, he picks up the thread of the discussion smoothly, explaining how he’d bring the pump to Scott at all hours and wash the equipment when she was done.

“It’s about focusing on what we — as men — can do,” he said.

Hale and Scott have a second daughter now, and both completed a five-day certification course that qualified them to volunteer as peer counselors. Rush is now looking at hiring Hale part-time to lead a male-only group.

Can you imagine? Think of how that education might translate to support at home — and more acceptance in public. The results could literally be life-saving.

4 responses to “Cultural Support Needed for Women Who Breastfeed, Plus a Pitchman for Breast Milk”

  1. Thank you for bringing this very real issue for breastfeeding mothers to light.

    As a white mother with some college education, I am privileged. I live in a middle-class neighborhood and encounter mostly white middle-class people when out and about. Even with the privilege the patriarchy has “given” me, I was still given the occasional glare and rude remark from women who looked down on breastfeeding in public. There are so many retorts I could have come back with, but most of the time I kept nursing my daughter with a feeling of temporary shame.

    If I felt this way, I cannot imagine how a hispanic or African American woman would be treated doing the exact same activity with racism rampant in the US. We do need better education concerning breastfeeding and to ELIMINATE formula commercials, hospital freebies (diaper bags, formula packets), and misleading information concerning both breastfeeding and formula. Nursing and potential nursing mothers need a wider support network, places they feel safe nursing in public (NOT the bathroom!), and for people to keep in mind the old adage: “If you’re not going to say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” We also need more doctors who know the benefits of breastfeeding and have accurate information concerning breastmilk and infant nutrition.

  2. It’s so disheartening to realize that 25 years after I faced these same glares and rude comments, it is STILL happening. You’d think we’d have learned something in the last quarter century. Unfortunately, so much of our news is dictated by corporate interests. Baby food and baby formula makers make their money by convincing mothers that there’s a ‘better way’ to feed your baby.

    In an interesting dichotomy, in my mother’s day, the poor and working class breastfed their babies. The well-to-do, educated and ‘informed’ used formula to ‘free them’, keep their breasts ‘shapely’ and be more ‘scientific’.

  3. Wow! I never really thought about why black women don’t bf much. I think my main reason for bf was because it was what I know. I’m not from a priviledged white background. My mother bf and so did her mother and my aunts. It’s just what I grew up seeing. When people were rude in public, it was easy to brush it off in my early 20’s because they seemed to be the weird ones.

    I can see how family opinions impact us. Whatever problems we had, my mother didn’t resolve bf problems with formula regardless of what my dr or MIL would have said. It just made sense to do it our way.

  4. There are some things which are ingrained culturally to the point that it sometimes is unshakable. I am a black woman living in Italy. I recently gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and the issue of breast feeding was a shock for me. I choose to bottle feed mostly because I am and have always been anemic and when I am not pregnant, I don’t eat a nutritious and balanced diet. There is some thing inside of me also that just has no desire to breast feed. When I gave birth, and informed them of my choice, I was told , “in Italy, we breast feed.” “I responded, well that is your choice, I am choosing not to do so.”
    I felt pressured into making an attempt for the first day against my will after being surrounded by four nurses. I was not successful at it and each day, I had to deal with a person asking me “why” I didn’t want to breast feed. Even on the last day, I left and had to return for my baby the next day because she needed further testing. Although breast feeding mothers were allowed to see their children, I was told to go to the window to see mine.
    The Italians breast feed anywhere and in front of everyone. On the first night of my attempt, the husband of the woman next door was in the room and she saw nothing wrong with leaving the door wide open. However, knowing what I know about Italy and how black women tend to attract unsolicited gawks from men due to the whole “brazillian prostitute” syndrome, I had a problem with it.
    When I arrived at home, I sat down and thought about my decision and tried to figure out the why’s. Well, no one in my entire family has ever breast fed. Most of the women in my family were registered nurses/ lawyers and I assume it is because most of us have had busy schedules.
    Then I went through the pentecostal connection as I call it in my family. My family is from the south originally and most of them are staunch Pentecostals, meaning that the culture of my family is extremely modest and conservative. In my family if a non family member drove one home from church and he was a married man, one had to sit in the back seat of the car. Imagine one of them baring a breast out in public. There was also something in the back of my mind, I never really allowed to come to the forefront. I always remember images from television based on the historical accounts of black women breast feeding during slavery and there is something inside of me that feels that it is shameful. I am being perfectly honest and I am sure that I will receive some backlash for my honesty.
    I honestly believe that because of the way America was founded as far as religious traditions which were very conservative at one time, this is the reason breastfeeding in public is frowned upon. It is something that most Americans don’t think about because it was so long ago, yet it is ingrained culturally. We have seen the influx of people coming from diverse parts of the world where things are different. With diversity also comes differences of opinion.
    The one beautiful thing about America is the freedom of choice. It is not as if one does not have choice in other countries, however there is a lot of cultural pressure. My opinion on breastfeeding is if it is for you, go for it. However, I think there should be some respect for the dominant culture in society. There is nothing wrong with a cloth to cover the breast if one is out in public. Most people have a problem with the naked breast exposed to the public in America not breastfeeding per se. Let’s face it, American culture is different from many others.

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