By breastfeeding her seven-week-old at the table in a restaurant last week, Beyoncé unwittingly joined the growing ranks of “lactivists” taking a stand in support for nursing in public. These warrior women have pushed for legislation promoting breastfeeding and staged “nurse-ins” to promote tolerance. Facing off against them are those who believe nursing mothers should retreat to bathroom stalls or backrooms when feeding.
Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka and Jeanine Valrie, the co-founders and editors of FreetoBreastfeed.com, are thrilled that Beyoncé, by openly breastfeeding little Blue, has popularized discussions about nursing in public. Many have praised the singer, while others have condemned the idea that she engaged in NIP — the acronym for “nursing in public.”
The more important outcome of this controversy for Sangodele-Ayoka and Valrie is the fact that Beyoncé has been uniquely positioned to promote NIP while increasing the practice among African-American women.
“The speculation that Beyoncé is breastfeeding is huge for us!,” Sangodele-Ayoka told theGrio. “Scores of girls and women find something in her with which they identify. I actually believe this controversy is evidence that a resurgence in breastfeeding is occurring and it’s bumping up against the recent reign of infant formula.”
Free to Breastfeed is a mouthpiece for this growing trend that aims to equalize access to breastfeeding information and support for black women, while giving them a safe space to connect. According to 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control, 74 percent of white women breastfeed their newborns, compared to only 54 percent of black mothers. Until these disparities are equalized, millions of African-American children might needlessly miss out on the benefits of breast milk.
“We know that breast is best because all indications point to it giving our children the best start in life,” Kuae Kelch Mattox, national president of Mocha Moms, Inc., told theGrio. “I have three children, each of whom were breastfed for two and half years… Seven total years of lactation!
“When my children were hungry, I fed them,” this leader of a support group for stay-at-home mothers of color embellished. “Simple as that. It was inconsequential to me when and where it happened, just that it happened.”
The revulsion some feel about public breastfeeding seems inconsequential compared to the facts that breast milk is known to enhance infants’ immune systems and decrease postpartum depression for moms (among other benefits). Yet, entrenched ideas about African-American mothers — even among hospital staff — prevent them from receiving the advice needed to make informed choices about how to feed their newborns.
“Many doctors and nurses in hospitals, despite their public stance in favor of breastfeeeding, unfortunately make assumptions, many of them inaccurate, about black mothers,” Mattox said. This leads health care practitioners to unconsciously steer them towards the bottle. “What speaks volumes to me is that almost every mother I know walks out of that hospital with a ‘gift pack’ from a sponsoring formula company, which means that women become accustomed to seeing the names Enfamil and Similac many times over right from the start.”The lingering effects of slavery also taint breastfeeding with the aftertaste of bondage. “During slavery, black women were forced to be ‘wet nannies’ and breastfeed the master’s children,” resulting in a stigma unique to black women, Mattox explained. In addition, images of tribal women in Africa with “elongated breasts” that often circulate in the media make breastfeeding seem like a body-distorting turn-off.
The best way to combat these negative images is with positive breastfeeding role models. Sangodele-Ayoka and Valrie applaud Beyoncé for becoming that black nursing icon, but both lactivists stress the essential need for daily influencers at home and in hospitals.
“One of the greatest social determinants for this inequity is race and the lack of access to support groups, lactation educators, International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs), and peer counselors in communities of color,” Valrie said. Person-to-person education, encouragement, and social interaction are key to normalizing breastfeeding among black women. Free to Breastfeed seeks to be that gateway of assistance, among a growing array of web sites and organizations.
Without this involvement, many black women will continue to perceive breastfeeding as alien. Singer Faith Evans, mother of four, echoed this sentiment when she told the popular blog Mom Logic: “I never breastfed. To be honest, it never really crossed my mind. It wasn’t big in my family and it wasn’t really encouraged or handed down as the thing to do.”
Sangodele-Ayoka explained why this might be so. “New mothers as well as their families and support systems need to be educated about how to support the breastfeeding relationship. Most of our families are at least two generations away from seeing and supporting daughters, sisters and cousins through their postpartum period, including breastfeeding,” she said. “So, the cultural transmission of the art of breastfeeding and how to even support it is in need of recovery.”
“I believe that if breastfeeding were a multi-billion dollar industry like infant formula, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion,” Valrie asserted. “Whenever a woman’s body is involved it gets controversial, especially if that body is black.”
Yet, neither Valrie nor Sangodele-Ayoka believe breastfeeding should become a divisive point of contention between mothers.
“I don’t believe women should be judged on whether they formula feed or breastfeed,” Valrie said. “At the same time, many women spend a lot of time researching the best crib, stroller and the like, but don’t really think about what food they will use to feed their children.”
Sangodele-Ayoka added that, “I don’t think any parent should be judged for doing the best they can with what they have and know. I do think it’s important for those who are in the important and privileged position to influence ideas and laws through media and legislation to advance health-advancing practices.
“When research continues to show us that exclusive breastfeeding can literally help prevent obesity, asthma and the aggressive breast cancers that black women face overwhelmingly, we have to ask ourselves why we’re still making the discussion seem like some cat-fight between mothers,” she continued. “We can use this energy to make sure that the messages about mother’s milk and breastfeeding are promoted among black women earlier and more often.”
The Free to Breastfeed founders are dedicated to this cause, and will promote it further in a new book featuring the name of their blog due this spring. “When you look at the women who share their breastfeeding stories on Free to Breastfeed, you see black women of all complexions, body types, and hair choices,” Sangodele-Ayoka mused. “It can only advance the movement to add Beyoncé to our list of contemporary black breastfeeding icons like Erykah Badu, Ananda Lewis and Tia Mowry-Hardict.”
Mattox also praises these black celebrity breastfeeders, but cautions that much deeper work is needed to upend entrenched feeding traditions.
“I would like to think that Beyoncé’s acts will encourage more black women to breast feed, but I really don’t think it’s as simple as that,” Mattox said. “The problem in the black community is a systemic one and it needs to be tackled at its root. Much work needs to be done across the board, from health care professionals and hospitals, in the black community and out to provide greater access to information, more emphasis on benefits, less emphasis on stigma, and yes, more role models at home, which is where it really counts.”
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb