World Breastfeeding Week (WBW), sponsored by The World Health Organization (WHO), is always a time of self-reflection for me as it falls on my birthday, thus marking another year of my life, as well as another year in my chosen profession. The theme of this year’s WBW is “Support breastfeeding for a healthier planet.” The WHO explains that “In line with this theme, WHO and UNICEF are calling on governments to protect and promote women’s access to skilled breastfeeding counseling, a critical component of breastfeeding support.” The WHO’s call to action comes out of an understanding that at each level––personal, community, and global––we have fallen short in making breastfeeding support available, accessible, timely, and culturally competent. To create a culture where breastfeeding relationships can flourish, all people who are involved in, or touch upon, any aspect of the childbearing year should take this moment to reflect and ask if we are holding ourselves to the highest standards, creating a collaborative healthcare environment, and making breastfeeding support possible for any person who chooses to breastfeed. That call to action is particularly poignant this week, which is also Black Breastfeeding Week.
As I reflect on WBW, I recall a moment from the beginning of my career during an internship at Washington Hospital Center in D.C. In the dim light following a birth, my preceptor turned to me at the bedside of a black mother and said, “help her with breastfeeding now. This may be the first and last time she nurses this baby.” I didn’t even blink; “black women don’t breastfeed,” had been repeated so casually and so often that it seemed a given, but it was false. I was just beginning my career in women’s health, and I had not yet even begun to examine the complexities of equality, justice, and racism within healthcare institutions. Even if those issues were discussed at higher levels, they were only whispers in social and professional breastfeeding circles. As a profession, Lactation Consultants were primarily white, older women and mostly RNs. The problem of diversity in breastfeeding support was only starting to bubble to the surface and appear on the radar of the same people causing exclusion. Almost 15 years after I began working with women, a harsh and glaring light has been focused on the “hidden in plain sight” disparities in breastfeeding rates. While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the surgeon general had been focusing on breastfeeding rates, which had steadily risen among white women, the lie that black women don’t breastfeed allowed all of us off the hook for standing up for the most vulnerable women and infants.
As a month of breastfeeding-themed celebration wraps up, the last week of August specifically centers the experience of Black women during Black Breastfeeding Week, themed this year as Revive, Restore, and Reclaim! As I reflect on my practice, my history, and my focus moving forward I acknowledge the education, compassion, and support that has been given to me over the years by women fighting heroically to increase breastfeeding and decrease infant mortality and morbidity among people of color and specifically black women and infants. My practice and my life has been personally impacted by the work of four amazing black women: Claudia Booker, Kim Durdin, Felisha Floyd, and Marsha Jackson. I encourage you to click on each one of the links and read about their tireless work in the community and support it. I stand on the shoulders of giants, giants whose leadership, intellect, and passion has the power to shape a new generation of lactation support and individual breastfeeding success. If lactation consultants could learn one lesson from these women, it would be one of generosity. If our profession as a whole could pour out the kind of selfless hard work and kinship that I have experienced from black doulas, peer counselors, CLCs and IBCLCs, then together we could move mountains–or better–remove the mountains that continue to be barriers for ourselves, our communities and most importantly the black infants and families who are most in need of our immediate attention and support.
This year in honor of World Breastfeeding Week and Black Breastfeeding Week and because our world needs action, not just sentiment, I will provide a scholarship for the B.L.A.C.K. Course, a breastfeeding counselor program designed by and for black breastfeeding counselors. Included below are resources to educate and support programs that center the cause of Black Breastfeeding Week and I encourage you to make your own actionable step to educate yourself and provide support to the work being done to end maternal child health disparities around birth and breastfeeding. In order to “protect and promote women’s access to skilled breastfeeding counseling,” I ask my peers and colleagues to apply generosity to their work within the lactation profession. Reach out your hand to pull someone else up, share your knowledge, wisdom, and compassion and move forward with open hearts and open minds.