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The Battle To Breastfeed For Black Women

For Black Breastfeeding Week, an obstetrician and a lactation counselor offer advice on how nursing mothers can obtain more support while also giving themselves more grace.
The Battle To Breastfeed For Black Women
Kylie Marume

This article appears in the July/August issue of ESSENCE on newsstands now.

Rosalyn Davis always knew she would breastfeed her child. But when her daughter, Naomi Grace, was born five weeks early, she was called to do so sooner than expected. Pumping to stimulate her milk soon overstimulated the flow, leaving her “leaking all day, every day,” she says. With help from an online lactation group, she learned methods to slow down her supply—but those efforts turned out to be premature. “When my daughter was about 6 weeks old,” she recalls, “I wasn’t making enough for her.” Fortunately, Davis was able to continue breastfeeding, supplementing with formula as needed.  

Certified lactation counselor Demetria Martin says that to nurse successfully, many Black moms require support from people who can relate to them. This is especially true for “first-generation” breastfeeders. “We need more Black lactation specialists, doulas, midwives, nurses and doctors,” she says. “And the ones that exist also need support as they educate, empower and promote breastfeeding in our community.” For further advice, Nicole Rankins, M.D., board-certified ob-gyn, shares what new mothers should keep in mind on their breastfeeding journey.  

ESSENCE: What are the benefits that make breastfeeding so important? 

Nicole Rankins, M.D.: There are lots of benefits. It helps to promote bonding and connection between mother and child. It may help you with getting your weight down a bit faster, because you’re burning more calories when you breastfeed. It’s going to reduce your risk of diseases like ovarian and cervical cancer. And for babies, it can reduce allergies, eczema and, potentially, diabetes. The immune system tends to be stronger for babies who breastfeed.  

Breastfeeding support is typically offered at hospitals as a mother is preparing to be discharged. Why isn’t the support ongoing?  

It’s partly the way our system is designed. We have a lot of focus on prenatal care, with pregnancy and birth, and not a lot of what’s called “anticipatory guidance” for what comes next. It’s unfortunate. Prenatal care itself does not give you all the information you need to set yourself up for success with breastfeeding. 

What advice would you give Black mothers who may be struggling with breastfeeding but would still like to continue?  

Ask for help from a lactation counselor, or connect with other moms who have experience in breastfeeding. The most important thing is a fed baby—so if you find you’re having trouble with breastfeeding, give it your best effort, but don’t feel guilty if you decide on formula feeding or a combination of formula and breast milk. Give yourself grace if it doesn’t work out exactly the way you had hoped.