It’s Black Breastfeeding Week, a week designed to celebrate and raise awareness around the unique issues facing black breastfeeding mothers. Did you notice? Or did it pass you by? Maybe you did, but many more won’t have realised it even existed.
Some will be questioning why a week like this needs to exist at all, given that we struggle to get through the week without a barrage of “opinion pieces” and the accompanying comment threads, downplaying its importance and rationalising why it isn’t necessary. The statistics suggest otherwise.
This was in fact how and why Black Breastfeeding Week came into existence. World Breastfeeding Week which coincides with the US’s National Breastfeeding Month aims to bring awareness of the challenges, triumphs and critical importance of breastfeeding. But after it was launched six years ago, three black mothers passionate about advocating for breastfeeding in the US, realised it didn’t actually speak for many of the black breastfeeding mothers within this community. And so, Black Breastfeeding Week was born.
Breastfeeding is very much of a minority in the UK. But if you are a black mother living in a western society, you are often much less likely to breastfeed than other racial groups. That is the reality, and a reality that can be downplayed or even completely overlooked in the struggle to get breastfeeding on the agenda and within the narrow parameters of poor support and knowledge that currently exist.
A series of unique social, economical, cultural and historical factors all contribute to this important global issue facing black families. The health and wellbeing of both mother and child is optimised by breastfeeding – it matters – yet it is unsupported and unrecognised.
Today, CIBII UK has asked three black breastfeeding mothers to share their unique stories, highlight their challenges and raise awareness on this important subject.
The time has come around again, celebrating breastfeeding whilst black. I know many women who object to the idea that we need a week (just the one out of 52, thank you) to celebrate the fact that yes, we also feed our babies as nature intended. There is a dark history, particularly in America surrounding breastfeeding and, if you know, then you know.
My name is Tianna and I am a 26 year old mother of one 18 month old, feisty little beauty who loves boob just a little more than she loves me! But, I am okay with that. I always knew I was going to breastfeed, right from those eagerly anticipated pink lines. What I didn’t know was how I would feel doing it, out and about as a black mother.
Why is that even an issue? If you are a breastfeeding mother, then you will already be aware of how small the breastfeeding community is. I don’t like the word ‘minority’ but I guess I fall into that category, twice over. Facebook groups, parent and toddler groups, general day-to-day life lacks women who look like me and breastfeed. I have a handful of friends who are also women of colour and breastfeed their babies. That number is less than 10. There are Facebook groups solely for black women, so that we can freely discuss and share the problems we face. Mostly American but it is still a community I can safely feel a part of with knowledgeable and friendly women in the same position as me.
Accessing support can be challenging too. I remember asking about thrush as I had been experiencing nipple pain and another woman said to me about having ‘pink nipples’ as a sign. I was shocked because, well my nipples have never been pink. They have and always will be black. I said that to her, to which she replied with something like, ‘Oh, I had never thought that, I am so sorry’. I mean, honest mistake, yes but it is also damaging. I felt that nobody would consider health issues from my perspective.
Often, when there is a call for ‘breastfeeding selfies’ I can tell you there will most likely be less than five women of colour who even brave the storm of comments uploading images of breastfeeding families. When diversity is mentioned, it sometimes is like a dirty word. The most harmful comments of ‘all women breastfeed, whether you are black, white…’ and ‘I don’t see colour’ are posted over and over again. That is called erasure. A sheer lack of understanding and an obvious display of ignorance surrounding inclusion and representation. Something that in 2017, we are still fighting so hard for. There are also seemingly less responses to our requests for information and advice. So I stopped posting in many of them, I couldn’t be bothered with the feelings of rejection or lack of responses.
Parent and toddler groups… well. I can’t remember the last time I bothered to go. Yet again, the only woman of colour and out of I think 7 of us on the ‘baby sensory’ course, 3 of us breastfed. I was the only black mother. It is the most anxiety inducing experience. I felt lonely, even in a group with women and their babies. Nobody spoke to me much, other than ‘hi’ though the conversation between them was flowing nicely. I wasn’t the youngest mother there but I was definitely spoken to like I was in need of parenting by the course leader. There is ‘being nice’ and there is patronising. I mean, why couldn’t I be spoken to like everyone else?
My first experience of ‘public breastfeeding’ was almost 17 months ago now but I will never forget it. I thought there would be looks of adoration but actually, it was more of a death stare. I gave as good as I got but, still. Part of me wondered which offended her more. My skin colour, me breastfeeding my tiny newborn.. or both. I just carried on, she was hungry and well, what other choice did I have. My partner was supportive and ready to fire back at anyone who dared to say the wrong thing. I am lucky that I have not had any comments relating to breastfeeding that have really upset me in public.
I know for sure, the racism and violence my black ‘sisters’ experience in the USA are extreme and can be frightening, I doubt I will ever experience life as they do as breastfeeding mothers but I will always stand in solidarity with them. I am far more confident now, that took GUTS. It took doing it over and over again, far out of my comfort zone to feed her unapologetically, whilst being unapologetically black and I genuinely don’t care. I don’t even have much say in the matter, Olli just helps herself! Pretty awesome, hands free breastfeeding. In fact, she was on the boob as I wrote this.
One week, that is all we ask for to highlight our struggles but unanimously celebrate our successes in overcoming issues that relate to being black, while breastfeeding.
My breastfeeding journey wasn’t easy to start off with. I had my first child aged 29 and had never seen a black woman breastfeed. I didn’t even remember that it was the reason why women had breasts, and in hindsight that’s actually quite sad.
When I was around 8 months pregnant my colleague asked me how I planned to feed my baby, I looked at her as though she was an alien. She then asked will I formula feed or breastfeed. Now that had never crossed my mind, I said I didn’t really know. That night I decided to do some research on breastfeeding and read about the great benefits and decided I would try to breastfeed and if I couldn’t then I would formula feed.
Now I’m one of four children and my mother never breastfed myself or any of my siblings. My aunts cousins and sisters were all formula feeders. I found I struggled at first because I didn’t actually know how to breastfeed and I left the hospital not knowing how to breastfeed. There were nights I would sit and cry because I didn’t know what I was doing or had nowhere or no-one to turn to. My family couldn’t provide me with the support I needed as they had no experience or knowledge of breastfeeding. Their answer was to give formula as I tried but ‘couldn’t do it’. It was extremely painful I had sore, bleeding, cracked nipples. It turned out my son had a “tongue tie”.
Anyone who knows me, knows I never give up and I wasn’t going to give up that easy. I spoke to my health visitor and she gave me a number to call and I had breastfeeding support from the infant feeding team and then attended a breastfeeding group on a weekly basis. I found that none of the moms who attended the breastfeeding group were black. The support workers were never black.
There is such a bad stigma for breastfeeding in the Caribbean community. As I want to break the cycle and support more mums to breastfeed (especially black mums), I enrolled as a BFN helper and qualified last year September.
As my son got older, at around four months came the comments ‘when will you stop feeding’, ‘when will you give proper milk?’ ‘Breastmilk is just water and it won’t fill him up’ My own sister said I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to do that in front of my sons. You get shunned a lot for breastfeeding, if you are going to breastfeed they want you to hide away and do it in private as though it’s a dirty little secret.
My son is nearly three years old. I still breastfeed and I will allow him to self-wean as I my knowledge has increased so has my love for breastfeeding. I still get weird looks for feeding a nearly three year old, but I am at a point in my life where I don’t actually care about the views of others.
Breastfeeding rates in Afro-Caribbean communities are generally quite low. I once read an article explaining why they were low, stemming back to the slave trade. Many black women of Caribbean descent would be descendants of slaves. There are a lot of psychological barriers that need fixing which will stem from that in relation to breastfeeding before things will change.
None of the literature or imagery you see of women breastfeeding are ever of black women. All tend to be of middle class caucasian women. As a black women how can you relate to that? Black women have very low success rates for breastfeeding however but the statistics look very different for those who are from Africa and they were not descendants of slaves. In the African culture it is very normal to breastfeed and you can talk to other women within your family about breastfeeding because they also have experience and knowledge of breastfeeding.
When I am asked why Black Breastfeeding Week is important to me, I don’t know where to begin. There are many unique challenges that black women face to breastfeeding their infant and I have some compounded issues personally. One of the biggest issues in breastfeeding—nay, infant feeding in any arena—is that people of colour are lacking in representation. How can we be expected to breastfeed if no one is showing us that black women breastfeed? There is a huge issue within the black community’s older generations who tell us that we shouldn’t breastfeed because that’s what white women do. Breaking those barriers down is easy: feature us. The system doesn’t want that to be a thing though. The system wants to keep black people where they are, because in so doing, they are lining their pockets at our expense.
Personally, I have faced many challenges. When I was younger, I had never seen anyone breastfeed. No one close to me ever breastfed in the open if they did breastfeed, which most didn’t. I am mixed race and was raised around the white side of my family for a long time, which detracted and disenfranchised me from my black heritage. It wasn’t purposeful, but just the way that things were. I only really started investing in myself and learning about my black heritage within the last 10-15 years. At 29, that’s pretty shocking.
*Trigger warning for next paragraph: Rape*
When I was 14, I was raped by an acquaintance and it affected me in ways that I cannot describe. I used to hate my body because I felt betrayed by it. And then at 19, I was sexually assaulted by a friend of a friend. Both incidences probably clouded my judgment on who I was and what I was worth and if I even wanted to be a mother with how broken I was. Over 8 years went by since my rape before I really dealt with it. I was 23 and was thinking about having a family. I didn’t want to raise children as a broken woman, because that would be unfair to them. So, I went to therapy to talk through it and deal with all the issues.
At 24, I became pregnant with my son. The whole time I was pregnant, I just knew I wanted to breastfeed. I didn’t care if it made me uncomfortable or how triggering it was. When he was born, he latched straight on with very little coaxing from me. And from the beginning it was a challenge. He was jaundiced because he and I have blood type incompatibility. He spent 27 hours of his first 48 hours under therapy lights. The nurses and doctors at the Military Treatment Facility where I birthed him were not helpful or encouraging of needing to get him on me to breastfeed and encourage my milk to come in. They told us he needed to be under the lights and on the light blanket if possible. They didn’t tell me that I could move the lights to shine on me to keep him happy. I didn’t learn that until much later. I was told that formula was better to rid his body of the bilirubin, but I refused to give it to him so they left me to it.
My breastfeeding relationship with him was strained. He cluster fed and I had severe nursing aversion with him. There were times that I just wanted to drop kick him for being near me. I found excuses to pump. It was easier on me, and it made my partner able to take him and feed him when I was feeling overwhelmed. I didn’t leave the house with him for a while as I was told that he would get sick by so many people. Eventually, when I did go out, I was afraid to breastfeed in public for fear of someone saying something to me.
Moving forward, it went from a few times of having aversion to every time. When I would put him to breast, he would send me into a rage. I couldn’t deal with that and looking back on it I wonder now if that has much to do with the rape and sexual assault I had endured. He had my milk until he was 13 months, which was a feat indeed.
My breastfeeding relationship the second time around was much different. Granted I still have aversion with her, but it’s not as bad as it was with my son. She is 21 months and we are going strong. I feel the difference this time was that I came into it determined, but also educated. I have better support now, too. I gave birth at a Baby Friendly Initiative certified hospital and had breastfeeding support groups to attend. I knew the challenges I would face this time due to my history, and had resources to combat those things! These are all things I didn’t have the first time.
Education makes a big difference. But so does having a village. And seeing others doing it. And knowing that people who look like me are doing it. And so that is why BBW is so important. To empower, educate, and uplift black women of colour. So much has changed in the four years since I had my son, but we have far to travel to really affect change in mindset and representation. Only 58.9% of black women in the US breastfeed at all. That number is so low. Having a sordid past with breastfeeding doesn’t mean we can’t reclaim our time and our bodies to nourish our babies. If I can do it with a history like mine, we all can. I hope that someone reading along today feels they can make change, because I have already started. I hope you will join me.
Credit for first featured photo: Thanks to Fiona Tarantino Poliri for itsuse. Photography by Kate Curry. Model is Francesca and baby Nala.
Article photos credit to Tianna and Simply Laura Photography.