The History of Racism in Breastfeeding

***Disclaimer*** This post was created with the full intention of educating and informing on the racial inequality that has, and still does, exist in the field of maternal health. It is important to note that the writer is white, and can not fully experience this issue, but wishes to continue to educate herself and others on this problem. The process of allyship is ongoing and ever changing, and listening to lived experiences, as well as sharing them, is vital.

In the chaos that is 2020, almost every aspect of our society has been tested, causing people to reevaluate their priorities and values. With the COVID-19 pandemic, lots of people were forced to change what their jobs looked like, or their visions for the future. With the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, Americans have reckoned with systemic racism and the role that we all play as individuals in this issue. For me, a college student planning to enter the medical field, one of the areas I focused on highly was racism in healthcare. I urged myself to look deeply into the flaws of the field I have always held in such high regard. This can be a difficult task, but I believe it is necessary to improve the lives of all of our citizens, and push further for a more equal world. As my passion for social change and maternal health care came together, I found myself looking more and more into the racial disparities in the field of breastfeeding. During national breastfeeding month, I want to take the time to reflect on the history of racism in breastfeeding, and the effects on today’s society.

While breastfeeding has been a part of all of human history, it was during the times of slavery in America that racism became intertwined in the practice. Before slavery, women of the lower class were often paid to nurse and care for the children in upper class homes. As the slave trade increased in the United States, slave owning women replaced their paid wet nurses with enslaved women who had recently had children. Because of this, breastfeeding became seen as an act that was demeaning and uncultured. Unfortunately, this toxic culture surrounding breastfeeding caused more and more mothers to turn the job over to their slaves. At the peak of the slave trade, newborn babies were kidnapped from their enslaved mothers, forcing them to nurse the white children in order to relieve their breast pain. This practice led to extremely poor health in the enslaved children, due to the forced neglect and lack of proper nutrition. The Black mothers were unable to bond with their children, and Black women were forced to disregard their emotional and physical health for someone else’s child. To properly understand the racial tension today, it is necessary to reflect on the horrible practices that took place in the past. We must as a society recognize not only where inequity lies, but how it developed, and then how we are able to remedy it. The practice of wet nursing only fell away in the last century, it is not ancient history in this country. 

When slavery was outlawed, formerly enslaved persons were still not equal due to the introduction of Jim Crow Laws and segregation. During this time, wet nurses were still used. Although they were considered free, Black women were still required to leave their families behind and provide life to babies that were not theirs. They were forced to leave their children and work for extremely unfair wages. The continuation of these harmful practices even after the abolition of slavery has led to a disproportionate rate of breastfeeding in modern day between women of different races. In fact, Black women were found to breastfeed at a rate of 16 percent less than their white counterparts, even in modern day. A midwife named Stephanie Devane-Johnson set out to uncover why this may be, and found that some Black women reject the idea of breastfeeding due to the historical exploitation of wet nurses. In addition, other systemic issues further aggravate the divide between breastfeeding rates. In a study performed by the Center for Disease Control, it was found that Black women are more likely than other women to have shorter maternity leaves. The study also reported that Black women are more likely to have inflexible work schedules, which can make breastfeeding increasingly difficult. In addition, an alternate CDC study found that maternity wards in primarily Black regions of the country are less likely to offer lactation support, or encourage breastfeeding postpartum. Instead, Black babies are disproportionately offered formula. While formula may be beneficial, the choice should ultimately be left up to the mother’s preference. 

Visual credit: Grace Zhang, SimpliFed

As discussed in previous blog posts at SimpliFed, breastfeeding has a number of benefits. Not only for infant nutrition, but maternal health as well. It has been shown to lower the rates of certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and postpartum depression. Increasing the rates of breastfeeding in all moms is an important step to improving postpartum life for mom and baby. It’s essential to close the racial gap in breastfeeding, because disparities in one generation may lead to disparities in the next. Disrupting the cycle can help improve health outcomes for Black mothers and children alike. Moreover, understanding the complicated history of breastfeeding is important to have an open discussion about why certain mothers may choose not to breastfeed. There are a host of factors that go into this decision. By having open conversations and listening to the lived experiences of Black mothers, we can work to mend the inequalities in healthcare, and move towards a healthier future for all.

Continuing the conversation:

As previously mentioned, the point of this post is education. Allyship has many different forms, and one I believe is absolutely vital is uplifting stories of lived experiences. Below I have compiled a list of resources from Black women and writers who have discussed this topic. The resources may be formal or informal, but all are vital for hearing the stories of these moms. Please read, share, and continue to speak up on how we can improve the healthcare system.

  1. The Challenges of Breastfeeding as a Black Person” – Amani Echols
  2. Black Breastfeeding Week” – An organization aimed at reclaiming the breastfeeding narrative
  3. Black Moms Breastfeed” – An Instagram account aimed at lessening the stigma and increasing Black Breastfeeding
  4. HeyTaeMama” – An all inclusive website with digital resources, products, and testimonials, with the goal of increasing breastfeeding awareness for Women of Color

Claire Dowell

13 Comments

  1. Nora Schapira on August 24, 2020 at 3:30 pm

    Hi Claire,

    Thank you for your work on this not known aspect of racism. I co-lead a feminist committee at my school. May I share this information?

    • Claire Dowell on August 25, 2020 at 2:29 am

      Yes, please share this! If you’re interested please check out the rest of Simplifed for great resources!

  2. Jennifer Santiago on August 24, 2020 at 3:49 pm

    Well done, Claire! Being aware of these issues will help you keep an open mind and be a better healthcare practitioner to all of your patients. I remember my mom telling me about how the baby formula companies made a big push to hawk their products in African countries in the 1970s. At first the companies gave mothers free product which came along with a lot of advertising bs about how modern (aka Western) women should take care of their children. In the meantime, mothers became unable to nurse because their milk dried up. Then they were unable to afford the infant formula and many babies starved to death. Incredibly sad results of corporate greed.

    • Claire Dowell on August 25, 2020 at 2:30 am

      Thank you for sharing this story. It is incredibly important to recognize the issues in healthcare inequality, so we can continue working to fix them!

  3. Brenda Dowell on August 24, 2020 at 4:17 pm

    Very well written, Claire.It was such surprise to me to read of the disparities between the races on snother basic facet of life. What a crime that babies of one colour were neglected so the others could thrive.

  4. Heba on August 24, 2020 at 5:10 pm

    Very informative, Claire! Also, was enjoyable to read. Thanks for writing such a great piece!

  5. Lisa Lyons on August 24, 2020 at 6:15 pm

    When my child was born, we were living in a city/state with a large African-American population – the former capital of the Confederacy, in fact. I was to some extent aware at the time that breastfeeding was drawn along racial lines for historical reasons as well as for current socioeconomic reasons (African-American women’s often inflexible job schedules, etc.), although I’m sure I’d never thought about it in this unified and organized manner, so thank you for that! Certainly I personally had no lack of resources telling me how, when, why, etc to. breastfeed. I knew it was the best thing for her and my health, and I didn’t really consider not doing it. I’m not sure I was aware that the kind or depth of information that was readily (overly??) available to me might simply have been unavailable to African-American women. It does occur to me that, the one or two times I went to a post-partum breastfeeding group at the hospital, I’m pretty sure it was heavily white, including the group leaders.

    My demographic group (white, middle- or upper middle-class, college-educated) was big on breastfeeding, and in fact there could have been some stigma if I hadn’t done so without a « reason. » (They were also big on catchy terms/labels like « attachment parenting, » of which breastfeeding was a big part. Personally, I gave up on parenting manuals/advice books very early on, in large part b/c of the tone and the bossiness.) But it’s worth noting that on one or two occasions, African-American women made comments to me that made it clear that they assumed I was using formula to feed. I’m not sure, now that I think about it, whether that was because those individuals didn’t know that their experiences and the availability of resources for them had varied so much from what I had (assuming that was even the case) or for some other reason. Their comments were not judgmental at all, and I was in no way offended, but their assumption was clear and it made a noteworthy contrast with the assumptions of my demographic peers.

    On another note, I think that in some ways/places, breastfeeding in this country may be equated with the sort of…well, how to say this without sounding unjustly stereotypical? Hippie earth mama consciousness? All-natural everything, co-sleeping and baby-wearing enthusiasts, maybe vegan or at least vegetarian, maybe anti-GMO, maybe lots of sitting around in circles for issue-oriented conversations, maybe holding chicken-pox parties, maybe anti-vax in general, etc. I know it’s not at all accurate to equate breastfeeding solely with one set of lifestyle choices, but I do think there is at least some correlation in some people’s minds. And AFAIK the hippie earth mama community is very white, as a group, in this country.

    And of course you leave this country and go to places like Nepal, and they’re pretty much all breastfeeding because that’s what babies eat. Duh. The moms don’t have to overthink it, and of course many of them have no alternative, so they couldn’t overthink it if they wanted to!

    • Claire Dowell on August 25, 2020 at 2:42 am

      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. It is so important to continue this conversation and reflect on our own lives, including times when we may not have understood the historical impact of our decisions. Please feel free to explore the rest of the Simplifed blog!

  6. Diane Lauzun on August 24, 2020 at 7:35 pm

    Thank you Claire. This was really informative. While I “knew” all this information already, having it presented so succinctly and in such a matter-of-fact manner has helped pull it forward in my mind again. While the reasons behind a lack of black women breastfeeding appear to have changed, if you scratch just below the surface, the underlying truth continues to be that our society still does not place equal value on quality of life and quality of health for all children and families.

    • Claire Dowell on August 25, 2020 at 2:45 am

      Thank you for taking the time to read this! It’s so important to converse about the different historical reasons for inequity as well as the modern reasons.

  7. Carolyn Shackell on August 24, 2020 at 8:02 pm

    Well written and enlightening, Claire. I knew that this went on, but did not address how cruel and unfair it was. I imagine that I saw it as “part of a movie” . Thank you for bringing this to our attention for what it was!

  8. Moira Scheuring on August 24, 2020 at 9:27 pm

    This is heart-breaking and awful – something that I never really thought about before. Thank you for sharing your work.

  9. Kelly Quinn on September 29, 2020 at 2:11 am

    Beautifully written and another sad commentary on cultural/health inequities that continue on in our country. As Jennifer Santiago mentioned above, I can remember learning in undergraduate and graduate nutrition courses about the formula companies propaganda in third world countries. There is not always safe water to mix the formula with and this also caused many children to become sick. Breast is best. Thank you for enlightening us with this sad history.

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