An intimate act of nourishment between a mother and her child, breastfeeding plays a crucial role in saving the lives of Black babies in Michigan.
August is National Black Breastfeeding Month and Tuesday marked the beginning of Black Breastfeeding Week in the state of Michigan. Governor Whitmer publicly enforced the weeklong holiday in 2019, making Michigan one of few Midwestern states to recognize the week.
Medical officials say the implementation of Black Breastfeeding Week provides the necessary time to share critical information with at-risk communities.
“We know that there needs to be time dedicated to broadening public understanding of the critical impact that breastfeeding is really having on improving the health of infants, improving the health of mothers, and improving the infant mortality rates in the Black community,” said Shannon Wilson, Director of Medicaid Outreach and Quality at Priority Health.
Michigan is ranked number 29 out of 50 by the United Health Foundation, making it one of the nation’s “less healthy” states. The poor score is partially due to Michigan’s high maternal mortality rate and low birth weight numbers.
Detroit’s maternal mortality rate is three times higher than the national average and pregnant Black women are 4.5 times more likely to die than non-Hispanic white women. Michigan has 13th highest infant mortality rate mortality in the country.
All hope isn’t lost. Studies have shown breastfeeding as having substantial benefits in combating the various trials attached to babies with complex medical needs.
“It’s premature births, it’s being born smaller, and it’s really about not getting the best start in life and so breast milk can help offset a lot of that,” said Wilson. “According to the CDC, increased breastfeeding by Black women can help decrease infant mortality rates by as much as 50%.”
The African-American has been disproportionately affected by faults in the healthcare field. Wilson says racial inequities place an added importance on highlighting Black Breastfeeding Week in Michigan.
“You also have to think about the unique cultural barriers amongst Black women and the lack of diversity in the lactation field,” said Wilson. “When we think about lactation consultants and all of those who really support the work of breastfeeding, that is a predominantly white field.”
Wilson says the lack of medical aid available to disadvantaged mothers adds to feelings of stress and anxiety.
“For some women, it is a challenge and when you don’t have a lactation support person there to help you through this, it can be really difficult to start and maintain breastfeeding,” said Wilson.
In support of Black Breastfeeding Week, Priority Health is doing it’s part to bridge the gap by providing scholarships to women of color seeking lactation support.
Wilson expressed that responsible medical officials aren’t the only ones needed to improve the Black community’s relationship with healthy medical practices – Michiganders have a part to play as well.
“Have the conversations with your pregnant girlfriend, or with your pregnant daughter, or even your pregnant mom depending on how old you are,” said Wilson. “We just have to get past having uncomfortable conversations and make it commonplace.”
Wilson says the Black community’s mistrust of the healthcare system is heavily responsible for the disconnect some have with breastfeeding.
“If we already saw a trend of Black mothers not breastfeeding, then a sum of those myths are being perpetuated,” said Wilson. “I think because we’re not having open conversations about it because breastfeeding can be an intimate topic, and oftentimes in Black communities, we’re not having conversations around intimate topics, that we’re not sharing that there are actually many, many benefits to breastfeeding.”
Wilson says the positive effects of breastfeeding can be seen in the development of the child and its mother.
“It helps with easy digestion; it helps to reduce the risk of infection; it’s in correlation with [lowering] childhood obesity further down the line; with a heightened awareness of COVID-19, breastfeeding helps to produce antibodies; it helps to reduce postpartum hemorrhaging and uterus cancer”, said Wilson.
Wilson says support from friends and family will help to improve the numbers of Black mothers who breastfeed their children.
Recognizing the importance of community and affirmation, Black Breastfeeding Week founders Kimberly Seals Allers, Kiddada Green, and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, “created the week as a way to promote breastfeeding and let black moms know they’re not alone.” 2020 marks Black Breastfeeding Week’s eighth-year in existence.