It’s National Breastfeeding Month, Listen Up
With every month having some sort of theme attached to it, it’s more than easy to go through your everyday life without considering what’s being celebrated. Did you know that July is National Hot Dog Month, November is Epilepsy Awareness Month, and August is National Breastfeeding Month?
National Breastfeeding Month serves as an annual reminder to educate ourselves about the realities of infant feeding, beyond the month of August.
August’s four weeks each have a focus: World Breastfeeding Week; Native Breastfeeding Week; Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Breastfeeding Week; and Black Breastfeeding Week. It’s easy to ignore something when it doesn’t have personal meaning, but it is everyone’s responsibility to consider why breastfeeding, chest feeding, and all infant feeding choices are absolutely necessary to talk about in every community.
Black Breastfeeding Week educates Americans about Black women’s complicated relationship with breastfeeding. Black Breastfeeding Week was founded nine years ago by Kimberly Seals Allers, Kiddada Green, and Annaya Sangodele-Ayoka. This year’s theme, ‘The Big Pause: Collective Rest for Collective Power,’ teaches us how the constant struggle of racial injustices, combined with the pandemic, requires a call for a moment of rest for Black women.
In the US, Black women have the lowest breastfeeding rates: 58% breastfeed at 3 months, compared to 72.7% of white women. At six months, this drops to 44.7% compared to 62%. These disparities are fueled by inequitable community support, lack of diversity among lactation consultants (10.8% being Black compared to 70.5% being white), cultural perceptions of breastfeeding, and legacies of slavery: Enslaved Black women were often forced to breastfeed white children- instead of their own.
When white women are the most common face of the infant feeding activist movement, we need to ask ourselves if we are truly working towards closing this racial gap.
Beyond inequity, National Breastfeeding Month draws attention to the stigmatization of breasts as non-ornamental: women are too often judged when trying to breastfeed in public because the breast has become extremely over-sexualized. Breastfeeding in public wasn’t legal in all 50 states until 2018 — which doesn’t make much sense.
According to Aeroflow, 25% of Americans find it inappropriate for women to nurse or pump in public. When it comes to nursing in a restaurant, that 25% jumps to 61%. When considering whether employers should have to provide a room to pump, 41% of men and 25% of women don’t think this is necessary. And, only 21% of men and 9% of women don’t think pumping breaks should be provided at work — engorged breasts hurt! Even if breastfeeding in public is technically legal, we still have a long way to go to eliminate mom-shaming.
So let’s get this straight: women are judged for breastfeeding and pumping in public, but aren’t provided with private rooms to pump at work — that must mean maternity leave is super accommodating in the US….. right? Nope. Joining the paradox of motherhood struggles, maternity leave in the United States is notoriously short and unpaid.
The stigmatization against feeding in public and the less-than-ideal workplace policies are only the tip of the ‘mommy-shaming’ iceberg. Parents who cannot breastfeed or choose not to breastfeed are sometimes deemed ‘bad parents.’ In her eye-opening book, Lactivism, Courtney Jung shares an all-too-real story about a mother bottle-feeding her child on a New York subway.
The mother, Maya, coincidentally sat under a state-sponsored advertisement promoting the benefits of breastfeeding. During her commute, Maya was confronted by multiple strangers who told her that “people like you shouldn’t have kids” and “can you even read?” Not that it was anyone’s business, but Maya was bottle-feeding her child freshly expressed breastmilk. If it was more accepted that breastfeeding does not always come naturally and it is okay if you choose other feeding methods, then maybe 67% of formula feeding mothers wouldn’t experience guilt, 68% wouldn’t feel stigmatized, and 76% wouldn’t feel the need to defend their choice to use formula (Fallon 2017).
National Breastfeeding Month is not about lactivism, only promoting ‘breast is best,’ or shaming parents who cannot or choose not to breastfeed (it’s their life!). It’s about bringing together organizations, coalitions and individuals to appreciate infant feeding awareness and tradition. Breastfeed Durham, an organization close to BIOMILQ’s Durham headquarters, is an inclusive and welcoming health equity advocacy group. They have supported and planned multiple events, like supporting Sister Song and MAAME to put together a community baby shower, an alliance of Black doulas for Black mothers, and an LGBTQ+ feeding celebration. But, advocacy isn’t just at the local level: Kaia, the mama behind Low Supply Mom, has been advocating for Low Milk Supply Awareness Day (and every day), August 5th, by leading the online conversation towards celebrating feeding your babies however YOU decide is best for YOUR family.
So, sure, August is National Breastfeeding Month. But, advocacy can’t be limited to 8% of the year. Let’s be advocates for better support when figuring out a feeding path, advocates for better workplace policy, and advocates for sensitivity of cultural disparities and differences. But, this advocacy can’t just exist online. Advocacy exists at your grocery store, at your favorite ice cream shop, at your church, at your kids’ soccer games. We envision a future where parents feel fully supported on their feeding journey, no matter their choice.
Allers, K. S. (2014, August). Top five reasons we need a black breastfeeding week. Black Breastfeeding Week. https://blackbreastfeedingweek.org/why-we-need-black-breastfeeding-week/.
Grassullo, S. (2019, June). Survey reveals how people feel about women breastfeeding in public. Survey Reveals How People Feel About Women Breastfeeding in Public. https://www.thebump.com/news/breastfeeding-in-public-aeroflow-survey.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, August 29). Racial disparities in Breastfeeding initiation and DURATION Among U.S. infants born in 2015. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/68/wr/mm6834a3.htm.
Family and medical leave act. United States Department of Labor. (n.d.). https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/fmla.
Fallon, V. (2016, September). The emotional and practical experiences of formula‐feeding mothers. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/mcn.12392.