When Plainfield resident Kia Gentles gave birth to her son nearly nine years ago, the black mother of two decided to do something she hadn’t seen any other woman in her family do: breastfeed. .
“My mother did not breastfeed. My sisters didn’t, my aunts no, I don’t think anyone in my family did,” she said, adding that despite having to find out for herself , she is proud to be a “first generation breastfeeding.” ”
His pride is justified. After all, Gentles, 40, has joined the ranks of other black women in New Jersey and across the country who, like her, are the first in their families to breastfeed and who, in doing so, are helping to bridge racial gaps. in breastfeeding. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 59% of black mothers said they breastfed in 2008, up from 47% in 2000.
That’s a significant increase, but black women in the United States have the lowest breastfeeding rates of any racial or ethnic group at 69.4%, according to the CDC. Black women, on average, also breastfeed for the shortest period, compared to other racial and ethnic groups.
This is partly because black women are more likely to be required to use formula in the hospital, face economic pressures to return to work soon after giving birth, and do so earlier than any other race, and experience inequities in access to health care, which are associated with lower breastfeeding rates, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The general assumption is that “black women don’t breastfeed,” said Chanelle Andrews, the first black president of the New Jersey Breastfeeding Coalition, a nationwide breastfeeding support and advocacy organization. State.
“It’s implicit bias and systemic racism that kind of fuels this narrative that black families don’t breastfeed and black families don’t want to breastfeed,” she said.
“And because of that, what often happens is when [Black women] going to our doctor’s prenatal visits, we’re not told or explained what our baby feeding choices are…instead, it’s just “Oh, you’re going to give formula to your baby” and the conversation ends there.
Andrews says she experienced this when she gave birth to her son nearly 10 years ago.
“Before he was born, I did not receive any information from my [doctor] about breastfeeding,” she said. “And then the lactation consultant at the hospital, even though I said I wanted to breastfeed, told me repeatedly ‘if he’s hungry, just give him formula, just give him a bottle. “
The lack of maternal healthcare providers of color, Andrews said, “and breastfeeding support groups whose members look like me,” also posed a challenge throughout her breastfeeding journey.
It’s one of the reasons Jersey City mom Renata Thomas, 21, says many black moms choose to “not even worry about breastfeeding.”
Thomas says she breastfed her daughter, who is 21 months old, and is now breastfeeding her 2 month old son. “But in my group of friends,” she says, “I was the only one who breastfed when it came to support, I researched online and just had to believe in myself, that I could do it.”
“As black women, we lack education about the health benefits of breastfeeding and support when we want to breastfeed,” she said.
It’s unfortunate, but thankfully things are starting to change for the better, says Shanita Joy Murray, a Union County doula and lactation consultant who is black and who recently worked with Gentles when her second child, daughter of 7 month old, Ava, was having positioning and latching issues.
Murray, who is a mother herself and has breastfed her four children, says she’s noticed there are more black and brown lactation consultants now than in the past and says it’s probably because of the strong demand.
“It’s interesting, but I think with all the recent attention that’s been given to black maternal health and health disparities in general, they’re kind of driven women of color,” said she declared.
“It made them more eager and excited to learn more about doulas and breastfeeding and inspired them to look for someone in their corner, both during pregnancy and postpartum, who can defend their cause and their health.”
Murray says almost all of her clients, with a few exceptions, are black women. For Gentles, working with Murray has been an experience she calls “seamless.”
“It was important for me to get this advice from someone who looks like me, who has been there, who has done it and who would be there to support me,” Gentles said. “That I could find someone like her, who could relate to me and who I could relate to…that really made a difference and meant a lot to me.”
Months later, Gentles says she’s “still strong” on her breastfeeding journey.
It’s a happy ending that breastfeeding advocates like Kameron Dawson, an attorney for the national legal defense organization A Better Balance, say they want for all mothers, “especially black and brown mothers. who are disproportionately harmed by the economic and health aspects of this problem.”
A Better Balance, which aims to help American workers gain the time and flexibility they need to care for their families, has a free and confidential legal hotline for pregnant or nursing workers and who seek information about their rights in the workplace.
Breastfeeding laws at work vary by state, but there are federal protections, Dawson said. Luckily for NJ moms, breastfeeding here is also protected by NJ law against discrimination.
“[The racial disparities in breastfeeding] cannot be solved by one solution,” Dawson said. “This is a complex issue that takes a lot of effort and requires lawmakers, advocates and women facing these issues to work together.”
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