Black women breastfeed less than other groups; Black Breastfeeding Week hopes to change that

Black Breastfeeding Week — which runs through Thursday — provides education and uplifts families who may face social and health care roadblocks to breastfeeding.

Delilah Bennem, 1, laughs while her mom, Endia Williams, who works as an eligibility specialist at The Lactation Network and as a doula on the side, lifts her into the air while Bennem’s dad, Joseph Bennem, watches during Latch & Stroll, a resource fair organized by the South Side Birth Center in honor of Black Breastfeeding Week on Saturday at Russell Square Park in the South Chicago neighborhood.

Delilah Bennem, 1, laughs while her mom, Endia Williams, who works as an eligibility specialist at the Lactation Network and is also a doula, lifts her into the air while Delilah’s dad, Joseph Bennem, watches Saturday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Endia Williams was a lactation counselor to help women breastfeed before she had her now 1-year-old daughter, Delilah. So when she began breastfeeding her own baby, she knew something was wrong.

She could see her daughter had a tongue-tie and a separate mouth issue, which would prevent her from latching correctly. The hospital’s lactation consultant wasn’t there that day, or the next. The nurse and pediatrician looked at Delilah and told Williams she was incorrect, and her baby was fine.

“They were basically like, no, that’s not that bad. It’s not really a tongue-tie,” said Williams, 28.

When Williams’ friend, a board-certified lactation consultant, came to visit, she agreed with Williams’ diagnosis. With her friend’s help, Williams connected with professionals who helped her baby eventually be able to breastfeed.

If Williams — a trained lactation counselor with an extensive support system in the breastfeeding field — had difficulty breastfeeding, many other women surely struggle or never get help, she says.

Being Black and breastfeeding comes with a host of challenges, research shows. The number of Black mothers breastfeeding is lower than any other demographic, both nationally and in Illinois.

The “breast is best” mantra has long promoted the idea that it’s the superior way to feed a baby. Health benefits abound, including enhancing the child’s ability to fight infections and diseases, experts say.

But what does a family do when latching issues, a lack of milk production and other obstacles are in the path of feeding a baby during an already overwhelming time?

Add in the effects of possible systemic racism, including health care inequity and bias from health care professionals, and it’s not surprising some Black families are too frustrated to continue breastfeeding, birth workers say.

Black Breastfeeding Week, which continues through Thursday, is designed to give intentional support to Black families.

Attendees browse booths during Latch & Stroll, a resource fair organized by the Chicago South Side Birth Center in honor of Black Breastfeeding Week at Russell Square Park in the South Chicago neighborhood on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023.

Attendees of Latch & Stroll, a resource fair organized by the Chicago South Side Birth Center, browse booths at Russell Square Park in South Chicago Saturday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A variety of birth workers can greatly aid in the pregnancy, labor and delivery process — from doulas, who provide wraparound support from pregnancy to postpartum, to lactation specialists, who help families navigate the breastfeeding process .

But for many, these options aren’t on the table, or even known about.

On a recent Saturday, supporters of the cause gathered at Russell Square Park in South Chicago to explore resources and organizations dedicated to demystifying breastfeeding.

The Latch & Stroll event, organized by the South Side Birth Center as its flagship event, brought Williams, her partner and Delilah out at the Lactation Network table.

A lack of family experience and knowledge, plus social stigma, can stand in the way of Black women breastfeeding, Williams said. Hospital staff and workers who are supposed to help can also stand in the way, at least in her and other women at the event’s experience.

Besides a misdiagnosis of her daughter’s tongue-tie, hospital staff initially didn’t believe Williams when she arrived at the hospital and said her water had broken.

“They acted like my mom and I didn’t know what was going on,” she remembers.

“We need to make it normal,” Williams added. “Everyday events like this, where people are outside with their babies, nursing their babies and talking about breastfeeding in a way that’s not pushing it, but also not negative, is super important.”

Janita Wiley, mother of twins who said she experienced preeclampsia and was not able to sufficiently breastfeed her children, holds one daughter while reaching out to her other daughter during Latch & Stroll, a resource fair organized by the South Side Birth Center in honor of Black Breastfeeding Week at Russell Square Park in the South Chicago neighborhood on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023.

Janita Wiley, a mother of twins who said she experienced preeclampsia and was not able to sufficiently breastfeed her children, holds one daughter while reaching out to her other daughter during Saturday’s Latch & Stroll resource fair in South Chicago.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

There’s “cultural stigma,” Williams said, against Black women using their bodies to feed their babies.

“It’s not about it being a sexual part of your body,” she added. “It’s not about exposing yourself. It’s not about any of that. It’s about feeding your baby.”

Black women have consistently had the lowest breastfeeding starting rate.

Breastfeeding in Chicago hospitals located in predominantly Black and Latino communities as the exclusive form of feeding for discharged newborns are often the lowest in the city, an analysis by the Sun-Times shows.

In 2018, Roseland Community Hospital, in a South Side neighborhood with a 94% Black population, had a 4% breastfeeding rate for discharged newborns. Up north in Lake View, 67% of newborns leaving Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center were breastfed.

More recently, nearly 92% of white women in Illinois breastfed at some point after a 2020 delivery, compared to 77% of Black women, data collected by the Illinois Department of Public Health shows.

Common reasons cited for these disparities have been the time commitment required and the mother’s confidence level. Some workplaces, especially in service industries, do not offer accommodations for mothers who need to pump during the workday, making it difficult to keep up with breastfeeding.

This can contribute to the sharp decline in mothers who continue breastfeeding after the baby’s birth. The number of Black women who continued breastfeeding just two months after their babies were born in 2020 dropped by more than 20%, according to the state health department.

Whitney Mikkula brought her three children out to the Latch and Stroll event. Although her family is white, Mikkula said she wanted to support Black Breastfeeding Week. After moving to Chicago, she said she was appalled by the lack of maternal health care access.

Learning about the state of South Side maternal access led Mikkula to go back to school to become a midwife. Midwives support labor and deliveries in home or hospitals. She has just one class to go until graduation.

Even for those armed with knowledge about breastfeeding, the experience can be an isolating one.

Jeanine Valrie Logan, founder of the South Side Birth Center — slated to open in 2025 — had difficulty breastfeeding her first daughter over a decade ago, which led to connecting with mommy bloggers going through the same thing.

In a “privileged space” as a doula, Valrie Logan says she was shocked to discover the messaging to lactation consultants during a training session she attended.

“The whole time the trainers were saying, you know, Black women don’t typically breastfeed, that is not a community that breastfeeds,” she said. “I was in a room full of 500 health care providers, and here are trainers teaching health care professionals how to support people during lactation, and they’re telling us that Black women don’t breastfeed. So if someone presents to them in a clinic or in the hospital, they’re not even going to think that this Black woman might want this information.”

Whether or not you see a lactation consultant during your stay in the maternity ward also depends on the hospital and your health care access. Some areas — like the South Side — are lacking maternity providers, and there are not many places to find help with breastfeeding after birth.

“We can get some support wherever we have our baby, but then you go home, and then you have to pay for a lactation specialist to come to your house,” she said. “The majority of the time people get frustrated, people don’t have support, and then it’s just so easy to look at that bottle across the room and say: ‘I’ll just do this.’”

Jeanine Valrie Logan, founder and lead steward of Chicago South Side Birth Center, speaks before performing a libation ceremony during Latch & Stroll, an event that celebrates Black families and breastfeeding.

Jeanine Valrie Logan, founder and lead steward of Chicago South Side Birth Center, speaks before performing a libation ceremony during Latch & Stroll, an event that celebrates Black families and breastfeeding.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Jen Jaume works as the director of midwifery at the Birth Center of Chicago — the only natural birth center in the city.

During her training, Jaume says she was always told that Black women did not breastfeed. Working at the birth center, Jaume doesn’t see it that way. She estimates that about 20% of their clients are Black, making up the largest percentage of women of color.

“We’re very client-led,” she said. “Just like everyone, they need lots of education and support.”

Organizations like the Lactation Network try to make access to support easier by getting employers and Medicaid to include coverage. They also work to make sure parents know the resources available to them throughout the pregnancy.

Williams’ partner, Joseph Bennem, wore a “Dope Black Dad” shirt with cartoon mockups of him and Delilah Saturday.

“It’s not readily available, people have to actually go far out to get this information,” Bennem said. “Growing up in the ’hood, you’re not hearing everybody talking about breastfeeding and lactation.”

He says parents are often left in the dark before the birth about natural processes like breastfeeding, that can actually be more cost-efficient than formula.

“It’s free, it’s natural,” Bennem said. “It’s a superpower, basically.”

Delilah Bennem, 1, laughs while her mom, Endia Williams, who works as an eligibility specialist at The Lactation Network and as a doula on the side, carries her during Latch & Stroll, a resource fair organized by the Chicago South Side Birth Center in honor of Black Breastfeeding Week at Russell Square Park in the South Chicago neighborhood last weekend.

Delilah Bennem, 1, laughs Saturday with her mom, Endia Williams, a trained lactation counselor, at the Latch & Stroll fair in South Chicago. Despite obstacles, Williams was eventually able to breastfeed her daughter.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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