Kathi Barber recalls watching her mother’s futile attempts to breast-feed her baby sister in 1984. “It lasted two days,” Barber said. “For her, it was so painful and she didn’t know how to do it. And this was an educated woman.”
When Barber, of Joppa, Md., had her first born, Amyhr, 13 years later, she had no qualms about breast-feeding him until he reached the age of two. Barber was driven by research showing that human milk is an ideal food for infants because it contains anti-bodies which protect against infection during the postpartum period. Breast milk is less expensive than formula feeding, and it helps new moms to quickly burn calories and lose weight gained during pregnancy, as well as helping them to bond with their newborns.
“When I was pregnant with [son Amyr], I just knew I would do it, Barber said. “I initially had a little trouble, but nothing major.” Barber was, however, troubled by the lack of breastfeeding among her friends and peers. Her concern prompted her to form the African-American Breastfeeding Alliance to educate black women and their families about breast-feeding and provide them with support and resources.
The alliance, which was created in 2000, also promotes human lactation or breast milk, as the primary preventative measure to achieve health equity among African-American women. Yet, despite the impact that AABA and other organizations have had in increasing the number of African-American women who breast-feed their babies, black women continue to trail white and Mexican-American women who breast-feed.
A National Health and Nutrition Examination survey shows that breast-feeding rates increased significantly among black women from 36 percent in 1993-1994 to 65 percent in 2005-2006. However, the findings, released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), also show that 80 percent of Mexican American and 79 percent of white infants were breast-fed during the same period.
Barber, a certified lactation educator and counselor, also penned a book entitled “The Black Woman’s Guide to Breastfeeding: The Definitive Guide to Nursing for African-American Mothers.” One of the reasons why black women do not breast-feed at the same rates as women of other races is a vestige of slavery, when black women were forced to nurse white babies rather than their own, along with a lack of motherly examples in black communities, she says.
And, despite an increase in lactation programs and consultants in hospitals, many health care professionals do not encourage black women to breast-feed. Barber also notes that heavy marketing by makers of infant formula also impacts some women’s decisions to breast-feed. However, black women who are educated, as well as those who have a supportive partner tend to breast-feed more, Barber says.
Niladga Johnson, who was breast-fed for eight months as a baby, breast-fed her son, Ajani for 14 months. Johnson, who lives in West Berlin, N.J., is 22 and her son, Ajani, is now 16 months old.
“I decided to breast-feed because I read that it is the best form of nourishment for a baby, especially in the first few months,” says Johnson. “I also read that the baby is less likely to have allergies. I am glad I did it because young women in particular can’t handle the initial pain of breast-feeding. None of my friends with children breast-feed.”
Yasmine McMorrin of Atlanta also breastfed her 16-month-old daughter, Madison, for four months. McMorrin, who says she was breast-fed until age 2, did not have the support of her daughter’s father to breast-feed. “That was not something they did in their family and they rejected the notion,” she said.
McMorrin says that free milk, compared to expensive formula, was also a determining factor in her choice. “But otherwise the bond created from mother to daughter was solidified through breast-feeding,” she adds. “I felt important in my new role as mother because I was giving my daughter something that no one else could, healthy natural nourishment.
“It is definitely a commitment to be there almost 24-7 for your child because you are their food,” McMorrin continues. “Some mothers can’t devote that time or may prefer the convenience of formula-feeding.”
A 26-page breastfeeding guide that is co-authored by Kathi Barber is available at http://www.womenshealth.gov/pub/BF.AA.pdf