Sanjima and Maya

It’s the UK’s second Black Breastfeeding Week and Sanjima DeZoysa, NCT’s Parent Content Manager, takes a personal look at race and breastfeeding. 

This week marks the seventh Black Breastfeeding Week in the US and the second here. I’ve been following social media posts and coverage about the week with interest. 

I had a difficult time breastfeeding my daughter. Eight years on, my memories can still stir up strong feelings. Some of the challenges I faced were certainly down to my heritage. As a first-generation British Asian, I can personally vouch for the fact that breastfeeding and the influence of race can create a complicated, emotional narrative.

Breastfeeding and racial inequality

Breastfeeding rates across the UK are generally poor - eight out 10 women stop breastfeeding before they want to and only 1% are still exclusively breastfeeding at six months, as recommended by the World Health Organisation. With these stark statistics, you might be wondering why we need a black breastfeeding week. Low breastfeeding rates affect all ethnicities.

When it comes to race, however awkward or difficult, I believe it’s important to ask questions, explore and debate. But what’s more important is to listen to what we hear, engage and look at our own bias or behaviour. 

US Black Breastfeeding Week was created to raise awareness about the racial disparity in breastfeeding rates among African American women. Why does it exist and how do we tackle it? London doula Ruth Dennison (pictured below) - the driving force behind UK’s Black Breastfeeding Week - believes many of the breastfeeding issues facing black women in the US resonate with black communities here. 

Ruth Dennison (copyright: www.121doula.co.uk)

Unique cultural barriers 

We know that some breastfeeding challenges are universal – regardless of race. But Kimberly Seals Allers (pictured), one of the US Black Breastfeeding Week’s creators and organisers, explains black women have unique cultural barriers and a complex history connected to breastfeeding. 

Kimberley Seals Allers (copyright: http://blackbreastfeedingweek.org/)

She talks about wet nursing in the times of slavery when black women were forced to breastfeed and nurture slave-owners’ children – often to the detriment of their own children.

“We have a different dialogue around breastfeeding and it needs special attention,” she argues.

Dennison agrees with the impact of colonial times and believes that repercussions are felt in the UK too.

“There is a history of breastfeeding trauma, which has passed down through generations. This may still be hindering breastfeeding in the black community today.”

Family support rather than skilled breastfeeding support

And there is a difference too it seems in the way that some black women access breastfeeding support. Dennison says there is evidence that suggests it’s more common for black mothers to introduce their babies to alternatives in the early weeks and months due to culture influences, social pressures and lack of skilled breastfeeding support. 

“Some black women tend not to seek breastfeeding education. They listen to their family elders, especially grandparents, as they’re seen as the ‘veterans’ in parenting,” she says.

This is not to underestimate the value of family networks and knowledge. Older family members gave me so much useful support and guidance. I was lucky to benefit from their front-line parenting experience. But breastfeeding myths and unhelpful suggestions also came my way.

Everyone has an opinion - not always based on fact - about why a baby might not be feeding enough/too much/too slowly/too quickly. That’s when skilled breastfeeding support makes a huge difference. 

My mum suggested various things that her family and friends had passed onto her about what I should do (take a bath) or eat (loads) to help with breastfeeding. But it was an NCT breastfeeding counsellor who helped me realise it was my daughter’s latch that was affecting her feeding.  

Inequality in mortality rates for mums and babies

In June, Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 discussed stats from the ‘Saving Lives, Improving Mother’s Care’ report that said black women in the UK are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. But it’s not just black mothers who have a proportionally higher risk of mortality – so do their children.

“Evidence shows that black families suffer the highest infant mortality in the UK. It’s strongly believed that the benefits of breastfeeding could help reduce these numbers,” says Dennison. 

Lack of diversity in breastfeeding support

Black Breastfeeding Week also highlights racial disparities in breastfeeding support and advocacy. Sears notes that many breastfeeding professionals are white and while competent might not be culturally confident or sensitive to the particular needs of black women. 

For her and her co-creators, Black Breastfeeding Week is “…a time to highlight, celebrate and showcase the breastfeeding champions in our community… And to make sure that breastfeeding leadership also reflects the same parity we seek among women who breastfeed.”

Interestingly, the NCT breastfeeding counsellor that supported me eight years ago was Chinese. Did her ethnicity make a difference to how I felt about her? To some extent, yes. I felt more comfortable telling her about the advice I was getting from my family. I thought she would understand some of the cultural challenges I faced. But I also remember her kindness and calm expertise – traits that are not colour coded. 

As parents, we face common highs and lows but some of our experiences will be influenced by our ethnicity. Those differences should be acknowledged, understood and respected - especially by those who offer us support on our parenting journey. I think that should be regardless of whether we see our faces and experiences reflected in theirs.

How is NCT tackling diversity?

We've committed to a three-year strategic priority plan on equality, diversity and inclusion. Part of this is to specifically strengthen diversity within our own practitioner base to help meet the needs of all parents. Importantly, at the heart of all NCT Breastfeeding Counsellors’ training has always been a focus on parent-centred counselling skills and a thoughtful, empathetic approach to support.

We support all parents and provide a range of support for breastfeeding through our free infant feeding support line on 0300 330 0700, website information and support services. We know that the lack of support when it comes to breastfeeding is one of the biggest factors in low breastfeeding rates for all women.

Our Birth and Beyond Community Support Programme builds on the value of members of the same community supporting each other. The national project trains mothers as volunteers to support other mothers through pregnancy, birth and early parenthood. Last year, nearly 700 new and expectant parents accessed our services because of this support.

Is breastfeeding really black and white?

Dennison admits that she has faced negative comments and criticism about connecting race issues with breastfeeding. Her view is clear.

“Black Breastfeeding Week is not a race war. We all know the world needs major improvements in breastfeeding rates. But when you work within the breastfeeding community and notice how badly specific challenges affect black women, it’s only right that someone waves the red flag.”

“Many people don’t understand why we need Black Breastfeeding Week. It’s important for families, breastfeeding practitioners and organisations to learn the reasons why. That’s when we can help make a change, reduce infant mortality and improve health outcomes.”

For me, Black Breastfeeding Week is thought provoking and positive. It’s opened my eyes to the specific challenges facing black women. And it made me write this article to open up debate and dialogue. How about you?

Further information

Read more about Ruth Dennison and what’s happening for Black Breastfeeding Week this year. 

Find out more about US Black Breastfeeding Week.

We support all parents, however they feed their baby. If you have questions, concerns or need support, you can speak to a breastfeeding counsellor by calling our infant support line on 0300 330 0700. Breastfeeding counsellors have had extensive training, will listen without judging or criticising and will offer relevant information and suggestions.

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