During the COVID-19 pandemic, breastfeeding for Black mothers has become a more difficult feat. Moms who are a part of our essential workforce have a higher risk of potential exposure and additional concerns with breast milk expression between essential duties. Breastfeeding support for moms, whether it be peer-led or with a lactation consultant has been upended. With social distancing practices in place, lactation education and support services have transitioned to online platforms which means less access for moms who need it the most. 

Two women shared their stories about their experiences during the pandemic.

The Lactation Specialist

Ever since Jerelle Cox, RN, BSN, IBCLC, CCE began her nursing career, she has noticed that Black women are still less likely to breastfeed and she worries the pandemic will increase the issue. Over the last 23 years, Cox has worked in the Mother/Baby, Labor & Delivery, Postpartum and Home Health Units. Currently, as a lactation consultant at Christiana Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, she works to help her breastfeeding moms and new patients initiate and continue breastfeeding. 

Since the pandemic began, Jerelle has noticed that most new moms want to cut their hospital stay in half (vaginal deliveries have a 2-night hospital stay, while a cesarean section is 3 nights). This to her poses a potential barrier, because breastfeeding is not always easy, moms and babies don’t get it on the first try and the rush home can leave moms without the needed resources and connections. She still reports for her shifts at the hospital but her support groups and childbirth classes are now online through Injoy, an educational platform where she and her colleagues focus on keeping the mom and partners informed. 

Jerelle doesn’t ever want a new mom to be afraid to reach out for help, especially to a lactation consultant. Lactation consultants are always there to help new moms initiate breastfeeding and can also provide childbirth classes for expecting families. Her passion for breastfeeding has even moved her to start her own LLC, Baby Blessed Beginnings, to continue to support and educate Black moms who want to breastfeed.

“Being a lactation consultant is my passion because of my own struggles with breastfeeding,” Jerelle told ESSENCE. “I wants to normalize breastfeeding and wish every woman the best their nursing journey. It’s worth every precious moment.”

The Doula

As an essential worker during the pandemic, your access to sanitary places, adequate time to pump and store milk between essential duties depends on your job. For Tara Clifton, 23, a birth doula and fast food worker in Jackson, Mississippi, and mom to two-year-old Anna-Claire, her concern during this pandemic is not how to initiate breastfeeding but how to sustain it.

Tara feels that she has definitely moved past the struggles of learning how to breastfeed but her job as a fast food worker jeopardizes her ability to breastfeed and pump. 

Originally, she wanted to wean her daughter in March. Her doctor even tried to convince her to stop breastfeeding, stating that it would be best for “developmental reasons.”

“I told him no based on what I had learned through my research as a birth doula,” Tara told ESSENCE. “There was no way I was going to stop breastfeeding with the unique protection of hormones and antibodies in my breastmilk to help my daughter during this pandemic.”

Since March, her restaurant has been providing drive-thru service only and workers stay outside to take orders. While face masks are mandated and provided by her employer, Tara still stresses about closely interacting with people constantly and then having to go home and share her body with her child. She worries if she passes the virus to her daughter, there is a possibility that she could give to the other children at her daycare.

Tara said that with most staff outside, no one cleans the bathrooms properly, so she prefers to pump in her car. Unfortunately, her restaurant is shorthanded with staff out sick and she needs to reserve her vacation days for her daughter, which means she often has to go home engorged because there is no time to pump while at work. Not only that, but now that her daughter is older, she gets a lot of push back from management for taking a break to pump because they don’t think it is as important as when she was a newborn. 

As a single mother, Tara has to look past the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19 since her continued employment as a fast food worker supplements her work as a birth doula and supports her family.  If she does get sick, she doesn’t have much paid sick leave but she knows her family will help take care of her and support her as she continues on her breastfeeding journey.

If you are an essential worker like Tara, you can learn more about your state’s paid family and medical leave policies here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created yet another barrier for Black women and breastfeeding but does that mean breastfeeding is impossible? Not at all.

Get connected to lactation consultants, don’t be afraid to reach out for support from partners and family and continue to advocate for yourself.

Breastfeeding Resources

*Feature image: Twins tandem breastfeeding. Jerelle Cox helped them latch onto their mom latch properly.