Commentary: Black Breastfeeding Week: Revive, restore, reclaim

By Tiffany Chalk

This month, I’ve fielded the same inquiry multiple times: “It’s National Breastfeeding Month. Do we really need a week specifically for Black breastfeeding awareness, too?”

My answer is always, decidedly, yes — now more than ever.

My proof-positive is based on several facts. One, in Delaware, 12.5 Black infant deaths occur for every 1,000 live births, compared with 5.1 white infant deaths for every 1,000 live births — with Black babies being 2.5 times more likely than white babies to die before their first birthdays.

Nationally, Black women have the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation in comparison to any other racial/ethnic groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, increasing breastfeeding among Black women can decrease infant mortality rates as much as 50%.

Like many issues driving the mission of the Delaware Healthy Mother & Infant Consortium and our partners, the playing field is far from level when it comes to providing Black women with motivation, resources and support to breastfeed. Likewise, every Delawarean has a role to play in ending disparities in Black breastfeeding and, ultimately, decreasing Black infant mortality and empowering healthier moms and babies.

Achieving this won’t happen in the seven days of Black Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 25-31). However, with statewide and national attention on breastfeeding, now is a perfect and critical time to change the narrative. Many consider breastfeeding solely “a woman’s preference,” but as the above facts indicate, the stakes are much higher for Black women. Breastmilk is nature’s best preventive medicine for infant and childhood illnesses and diseases rampant in Black communities, including upper-respiratory infections, sudden infant death syndrome and childhood obesity. Listening to women is most important to support them and share the health benefits, so that they can make an informed choice. Breastmilk offers a direct link to help babies mature into healthy children — and to thrive, period.

Delaware is changing the narrative to one of “Revive, Restore and Reclaim” to better support Black women who choose to breastfeed. Delawareans must understand where and how we — as influencers, employers and caring citizens — can bring about change leading to increased breastfeeding among Black women. Here are five ways we can remove the toughest barriers:

• Increase knowledge among Black women about breastfeeding’s many health benefits for child and mother.

• Support initiatives to increase diversity in the lactation field. The racial disparity in breastfeeding leadership and culturally appropriate lactation services is blatant — and detrimental.

• Facilitate breastfeeding in the workplace. Lower-income Black women often return to work earlier and could benefit from paid childbirth leave, more flexible schedules and breastfeeding/expression accommodations.

• Address and be sensitive to unique cultural dynamics that deter breastfeeding. These range from historical wet-nurse duties for slaves to a lack of role models.

• Create “first-food-friendly” neighborhoods. Too many Black women live in “first-food deserts.” It takes more than just breasts to breastfeed — women need communities providing everything from access to healthier foods to emotional support.

I encourage you to learn more at DEThrives.com/BlackBreastfeeding and by participating in virtual events this week: “Chocolate Milk: Big Latch for Black Families” (today, 7:30 p.m.) and the Virtual Statewide Black Women’s March (Saturday, 10 a.m.). As they say, it takes a village — and person by person, we are creating this village to support more Black women in doing what is best for their children and themselves.

But we cannot do it alone. By accepting the unique roles we all can play and by acting on these roles, we have the potential of impacting lives today in ways that lead to more positive futures.

Tiffany Chalk is the Delaware Healthy Mother & Infant Consortium’s Well Women/Black Maternal Health Work Group lead and a governor-appointed consumer advocate and representative.