Breast Feeding Often Avoided By Black Moms

A National Health and Nutrition Examination survey shows that breast-feeding rates have increased among black women from 36 percent in 1993-1994 to 65 percent in 2005-2006. Still, that number is significantly lower than Latina and white women. In this week's parenting conversation, guest host Jennifer Ludden discusses reasons behind the statistics with Kathi Barber, author of 'The Black Woman's Guide to Breastfeeding: The Definitive Guide to Nursing for African-American Mothers.' Barber is joined by moms Jamila Bey, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, and Dawn Porter, a television executive.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a breast cancer survivor reacts to recommendations for less breast cancer screening.

But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, we talk about breastfeeding in the African-American community. Traditionally, black mothers have the lowest rates of nursing, by some counts half that of whites and Hispanics. The federal government and nonprofit groups have been trying to boost rates in recent years, and some surveys show an increase in black mothers who breastfeed at least part of the time. But rates for African-Americans, and actually for all mothers, still fall short of what health experts would like to see.

Joining us to talk about this more is Kathi Barber, author of 'The Black Woman's Guide to Breastfeeding. She's also the founder of the African-American Breastfeeding Alliance. Also here is Jamila Bey, a mother and reporter for WAMU in Washington, D.C. And Dawn Porter is a lawyer, writer and now filmmaker. She breastfed her two sons while working at ABC News. Welcome to all of you.

Ms. KATHI BARBER (Author): Thank you.

Ms. JAMILA BEY (Journalist): Thank you for having us.

Ms. DAWN PORTER (Television Executive): It's nice to be here.

LUDDEN: Kathi Barber, let's start with you. You've done a lot of work to help encourage African-American women to breastfeed your children. What motivated you to become an activist on this?

Ms. BARBER: Well, it started right at home with nursing my own kids. I nursed my son for two years, and then I nursed my daughter for 17 months. So while breastfeeding both of those kids, I found out that black women in my community weren't breastfeeding.

LUDDEN: You said that you were looking around for models and didn't really see them.

Ms. BARBER: Yeah, I didn't see any models. I didn't see women in my family breastfeeding, and I didn't see friends breastfeeding, and I didn't see other women in my community breastfeeding. So I just became curious about why that was the case, and I began to do some research and found out that black women had the lowest breastfeeding rates in the country. And that was 12 years ago, and it still seems to be the case today.

LUDDEN: It's still the case. So what did you find in your search to explain this gap?

Ms. BARBER: Well, I found that, number one, there wasn't support in the African-American community to breastfeed. Support - as far as support groups, information about breastfeeding, breastfeeding classes, people saying that, hey, you should breastfeed your baby, there wasn't even a dialogue about breastfeeding. So the information about breastfeeding simply was not there.

That was the main thing, and then our health care providers didn't speak to us about breastfeeding, and there just was a general lack of interest in the whole topic about breastfeeding.

LUDDEN: And a sort of assumption that people would formula-feed?

Ms. BARBER: There was definitely an assumption that people would formula-feed, and my doctor, whom I love, didn't even ask me if I would breastfeed. It was assumed that I would formula-feed.

LUDDEN: Jamila, you have a young son, and you have breastfed him. I mean, was that ever a question?

Ms. BEY: There was never a question. When I considered the benefits of breastfeeding, it never occurred to me to not do that, but also, I come from a family where we all nurse our babies. My mom nursed all four of her daughters. I have cousins who nurse their babies. So I grew up seeing it. And my son is almost a year and a half, and we nurse wherever. I call myself a lactivist because I have nursed at funerals. I have nursed in a lawyer's office. I have nursed - there are a couple places where I just didn't feel comfortable, but it wasn't an issue of, oh, I'm ashamed or anything. It was more like I don't like the vibe of this place anyhow.

And there are places where I've asked: Is it okay if I nurse him here? And I've had somebody say, Oh, well, there's a bathroom over there. And I'm very adamant about: Do you eat in the bathroom? Do you eat with a blanket over your head?

LUDDEN: So what about what Kathi is saying though? Did you feel that at all, that you were doing something out of the ordinary? Was there support?

Ms. BEY: I did indeed. I do sometimes feel I'm doing something out of the ordinary. Many of the groups I'm a member of, I'm the only black mother who nurses. I do feel that particularly in the black community there's not much support from our husbands and our boyfriends. A lot of times it's sort of like well, these breasts belong to my man, you know, and I'm not even get into what I say to my girlfriends who tell me that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEY: But, you know, it is unusual and the fact that I have a baby who can crawl into my lap and say the word nurse, people are going well, if he can ask for it, it's time for you to wean him. And I go, no. He doesn't have all of his teeth. He's a baby. This is how babies are fed. Why would you give a corporation money to feed your child when you can do a better job? I've had a few girlfriends who have said to me things like well, you know, I'll nurse at home but out in public, you know, I could never nurse in public. And I'm going well, you understand you have a child who's going to want to nurse. Dress appropriately. If you need to bring a shawl - now, I have a kid who won't let me put anything over his head so I just wear longer shirts and make sure that we can be covered, but it to me is no different from: It's cold. I need a coat. I'll dress appropriately. It's raining. I'll bring an umbrella.

LUDDEN: Dawn, what about your experience? I mean have you, you know, in the African-American community you know is this something that's widespread or rare?

Ms. PORTER: I think it is widespread. I know that my mother nursed me but I also know that she did it in secret. And I think that that gives a kind of an insight, you know, when we start to examine, you know, what are the obstacles to breastfeeding for African-American women. My grandmother did not nurse. She thought it was an advance to use formula and she definitely passed that message on to her daughter who had me in the �60s. And my mother was, you know, a rebel so she nursed but she nursed in secret. So, you know, there was definitely a mixed message. And I think that, you know, the formula feeding is convenient and it is what the, you know, definitely for my grandmother's generation it was what the upper class people did.

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with three African-American mothers about breastfeeding.

Dawn, just a follow-up there, you know, my mother, white, in the �60s, she had me and formula was the thing. I mean it was the era of astronaut food and so I think that's a message a lot families got. Is there anything particular in the African-American family though that you sensed about this issue?

Ms. PORTER: I did. I felt like it was something of a class issue. You know, my grandmother was married to a doctor and she was very proud of that and she thought she was going to be the generation of people who embraced modern advances. And I'm not quite sure what motivated my mother to reject the whole formula feeding.

And then for me, I - my sister is younger than I am and she breastfed, and that was really instructive for me seeing how she managed. She went back to work fairly early. She went back to work after three months and she was, you know, a pumping machine and she worked it out and she was very quiet about it. And that made a big impact on me because I think, you know, another thing we should talk about is a lot of African-American women are working mothers.

LUDDEN: Yes. Kathi Barber, a very long tradition of African-American working mothers. I mean people will say look, it's not a choice, you know...

Ms. BARBER: Right. .TEXT: LUDDEN: ...it has been necessity. How crucial do you think that has been for the low rates we see today?

Ms. BARBER: It's extremely crucial and we hear it all the time when we teach breastfeeding classes or try to pitch the idea about breastfeeding to black women, that if they're even going to attempt to breastfeed, they'll say, just as we've heard today, that we'll do it as long as we're at home, but once we go back to work we won't continue to breastfeed. And I think there's a fear that it won't be supported in the workplace, a fear about how to use a breast pump. I can't afford to get a breast pump.

LUDDEN: And we should explain very briefly for the men in the audience perhaps, a breast pump...

Ms. BARBER: Right. A breast pump is what you would use when you can't breastfeed your baby. It's used to extract milk from the breast essentially when you can't get...

LUDDEN: There's battery-operated.

Ms. BARBER: Right. Electric.

LUDDEN: There's electric.

Ms. BARBER: Yes.

LUDDEN: There's hand pumps and yeah.

Ms. BARBER: Yeah. They're many kinds for it. And so women - African-American women get deterred about continuing to breastfeed once they go back to work. And so they often stop really, really early, often before six weeks.

LUDDEN: Well, I can imagine, you know, the type of job you have that would dictate how difficult this is. Jamila, you - do you pump at work and how does it go?

Ms. BEY: I did pump at work. I was very fortunate in that I worked with other women who had babies, so I was given an office and - go in here, take your time, have some water, put on TV and relax. And I realized that's really unusual, that most women probably do not have that. And I wish that more black women would join and come together and make these policy changes. You know, we need to approach our management in our workplaces. We need to come together with other mothers because this is what's best for our children. If smokers can take their time, if Facebookers can steal away for their time, mothers should be able to take the 15 or 20 minutes to pump. And that's a policy issue that I think we need more fighting for.

LUDDEN: Dawn, what was your experience pumping at work and would you have advice for moms, who, you know, want to do this but are kind of daunted at the prospect?

Ms. PORTER: Yeah. I think well, first of all, my experience and, you know, I loved working at ABC News, but I would not call it a pumping-friendly environment. And I don't think that was intentional and I think that this is the case for many employers. It's not that they're against breastfeeding or they don't want to be supportive. I think Jamila is right, that they, you know, they need to be educated and women need to explain what they need. I was on a floor with management and so even though I had my own office, it wasn't the kind of place where you'd want to be naked. So what we...

LUDDEN: Or even half naked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PORTER: Half naked. Even half, you wouldn't want to have any nakedness happening. So what ended up happening was I would lug my pump in every Monday and with varying success, you know - and your milk production depends on your body. Your head has to be in it just like your body has to be cooperating, and so I was having varying degrees of success. So what happened is, much like Jamila is saying, we ended up getting a few nursing mothers and we commandeered an empty office and it became the pumping room. And, you know, word spread and many people started coming. And we left our pumps there. And one woman brought in a picture of her baby and we would all look at the pictures of the baby. And we put a refrigerator in there. And, you know, so that really saved my nursing experience because it can be very lonely. But I was really motivated because, you know, coming home at the end of a day, being separated from my son, there was a great connection between the two of us when I would nurse and I really wanted to keep that going as long as I could.

LUDDEN: Kathi, there has been legislation out there to encourage businesses to promote breastfeeding in the workplace more. But where does it stand now?

Ms. BARBER: Well, it's still - we're still waiting for it to be passed. And we hope that with, you know, with the health care reform and all these things that are out there, that some things will be changed for us. There are a few states that have some laws that help to protect women who decide to breastfeed when they go back to work or when they breastfeed in public but there's so much more that needs to be done so that when women go back to work they can feel supported.

And I just wanted to add about my own breastfeeding experience when I went back to work. I think the key when you go back to work and continue to breastfeed is to have the resolve to do it. If you don't resolve that you're make it no matter what, then you pretty much won't be successful at it and that's what I try to tell women all the time. When you begin breastfeeding, decide at the start that you can do it, whether you take it one day at a time or a week at a time. When I was nursing my son, I went back to work at nine weeks. And I worked for a women's organization and I had to pump in the bathroom that had a crack at the bottom of the door about two inches high and I had a double-electric pump. So it was pretty loud.

LUDDEN: Everyone heard it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Everyone knew you were...

Ms. BARBER: Everyone knew what I was doing in the bathroom. But I resolved to do it and it worked out.

LUDDEN: Kathi Barber is the author of "The Black Woman's Guide to Breastfeeding," and co-founder of the African-American Breastfeeding Alliance. Jamila Bey is a mother and reporter for WAMU in Washington, D.C., and Dawn Porter is a lawyer, writer, filmmaker and mother.

Thanks so much all of you.

Ms. BARBER: Thank you.

Ms. PORTER: Thank you.

Ms. BEY: Thank you.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.