After giving birth to her children, Sierra Woods struggled to breastfeed and sought out professional help. She was seeking someone that looked like her, and when she finally found someone, she was elated. “Through the process of trying to find a Black International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiner, Woods saw a clear need in the Indianapolis community for the Black breastfeeding community.”

Thus began Woods’ journey to starting her own business “MelaMama,” which offers individualized “breastfeeding support, lactation consultation, and return-to-work help” and now, Woods “is the only Black lactation and breastfeeding specialist in private practice in Indianapolis.”

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breastfeeding is a “critical factor in improving public health,” and it “prevents many of the contributing factors that cause black infant mortality rates to be significantly higher such as SIDS, complications of low birth weight, and maternal complications.” Additionally, “[t]he American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months. The Academy also advises that breastfeeding should be continued when foods are introduced for an additional six months.”

Research from one study highlighted the fact that the race of the caregiver has a radical impact on survival rates for both mother and infant—for instance, with a white doctor, “Black babies are about three times more likely to die in the hospital than white newborns.” It follows that, “if we had Black lactation consultants, we would likely see an increase in the survival rates for black babies.”

Despite the evidence on how beneficial it is to breastfeed, the New York Times reports that “61% of Black mothers initiated breastfeeding compared to 78% of white mothers.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also found that Black women are breastfeeding “for shorter durations.” Stephanie Devane-Johnson, a North Carolina doctoral student conducted research to uncover the root cause of why there was a difference, and ultimately attributed it to “[s]ociohistorical factors…such as stereotypes dating back to slavery…they [Black mothers] saw it as a ‘white thing.’” 

Indeed, Woods explained how “[d]uring slavery times, African Americans has to actually feed their slave owners’ children.’…This part of Black and African American history has been linked to why generations of Black mothers didn’t breastfeed their children, either due to a lack of supply or psychological trauma.” This is on top of other factors that might serve as a barrier and prevent breastfeeding, including the hyper-sexualization of Black bodies, lack of paid maternal leave and a safe space to pump, in addition to inequities with health insurance that many Black women face. 

Woods feels that “lactation support and advocacy is her calling in life.” When asked about what advice she’d give to someone at the start of their path to breastfeeding, she said, “Education. Education. Education. Oh, and support. The more you know about breastfeeding, the better off you will be. You will be more confident which is vital. Support is my 2nd piece of advice. Find your village and lean on them when you are feeling overwhelmed…Knowledge is power!”

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