According to research led by Dr. Amudha Palaniappan of Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J., “Black mothers in the United States are less likely to breast-feed their babies than other moms, and many cite a personal preference for the bottle as the primary reason,” Yahoo! reports.
Dr. Palaniappan says that while a national average of 73% of moms at least try breastfeeding, only 54% of black mothers attempt to put their babies to the breast.
What Palaniappan found when she surveyed black and non-black moms was that only 23% of black mothers had barriers to breastfeeding that are considered easy to change by medical experts. Those include fear of pain, latching problems and milk supply issues. Attitudes that prevent mothers from breastfeeding and are considered more difficult to penetrate are a “lack of desire to breast-feed, insufficient knowledge, previous formula-feeding,” and a “return to work or school.” By contrast, 42% of the non-black mothers were considered easily changed in their outlook toward and willingness to try breastfeeding.
The results of this rather small study show that, “A lack of interest in breast-feeding was the most commonly reported barrier to nursing among black women — 55 percent of black women compared to 27 percent of women in other ethnic groups felt this way.”
The problem with this study – and Yahoo’s coverage of it – is that it lumps all black women into the same category, when I think it’s clear, at least from the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen – that a desire to breastfeed has more to do with socio-economic status and culture than it does with race or ethnicity.
Yahoo quotes La Leche League leader and doula, Micky Jones, who is black, as saying, ”You don’t desire something you don’t see. In the black community, you don’t see a lot of black women breast-feeding.” In my experience as a mother residing in Harlem, a mostly black and Latino community, I can’t recall seeing a single mother of any ethnicity breastfeeding in public during the first 18-months of my child’s life. However, I can’t conclusively say black women in the neighborhood didn’t try breastfeeding and give it up or didn’t prefer to breastfeed at home or in another private place. But my observations of the culture in Harlem compared to a more affluent and parent-centered New York neighborhood like Park Slope in Brooklyn lead me to believe that socio-economics and, to be frank – fashionability – have more to do with the inclination to breastfeed than anything else. Further to the point, I think researchers would see the same breastfeeding disparity among poor white women vs. wealthy white women and rural white women vs. urban white women. Perhaps one of the reasons I was unsuccessful at breastfeeding is because I resided in an “ethnic” neighborhood where support was less obviously available.
Experts say that “what’s needed are coordinated efforts to educate mothers and their families about breastfeeding’s benefits” and to “clarify misinformation and myths.” Jones, who “wrote a blog about breast-feeding for black women,” is herself propagating myths – but about formula-feeding instead. Yahoo! quotes her as saying, “new moms need to know that exclusive formula-feeding poses risks.” While formula feeding may not provide as many advantages as breastfeeding – a point no one disagrees with – it seems a bit rash to say that formula feeding poses risks. In fact, some research shows that in regards to food allergies – which black male children are 4.4 times more likely to have – breastfeeding offers no advantage in preventing the affliction and has even resulted in “increased rates of allergy” at times, according to Dr. Robert Wood. I’m certainly not trying to disprove the mantra “breast is best,” and I would try to breastfeed again if I had a second child, but it seems obvious to me that scaring black mothers away from formula is not the same as (nor is it going to) nudge them toward breastfeeding.
What I believe is needed – if we really want to promote a breastfeeding culture as a nation – is a more tolerant view of formula feeding. One that encourages women to at least give breastfeeding a try and doesn’t result in them feeling like failures if they don’t do everything this side of death to feed their children naturally. Like in politics, the extreme attitudes on either side of “the breastfeeding wars” are the real culprit here. If we as mothers want to see more women breastfeeding, it’s time to lay off the judgement and guilt-trips and instead offer a more understanding point of view to those who struggle with the idea and/or the method itself.
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