The History of Racism in Breastfeeding

Claire Dowell
August 23, 2020

***Disclaimer*** This post was created with the full intention of educating and informing on the racial inequality that has, and still does, exist in the field of maternal health. It is important to note that the writer is white, and can not fully experience this issue, but wishes to continue to educate herself and others on this problem. The process of allyship is ongoing and ever changing, and listening to lived experiences, as well as sharing them, is

In the chaos that is 2020, almost every aspect of our society has been tested, causing people to reevaluate their priorities and values. With the COVID-19 pandemic, lots of people were forced to change what their jobs looked like, or their visions for the future. With the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, Americans have reckoned with systemic racism and the role that we all play as individuals in this issue. For me, a college student planning to enter the medical field, one of the areas I focused on highly was racism in healthcare. I urged myself to look deeply into the flaws of the field I have always held in such high regard. This can be a difficult task, but I believe it is necessary to improve the lives of all of our citizens, and push further for a more equal world. As my passion for social change and maternal health care came together, I found myself looking more and more into the racial disparities in the field of breastfeeding. During national breastfeeding month, I want to take the time to reflect on the history of racism in breastfeeding, and the effects on today’s society.

While breastfeeding has been a part of all of human history, it was during the times of slavery in America that racism became intertwined in the practice. Before slavery, women of the lower class were often paid to nurse and care for the children in upper class homes. As the slave trade increased in the United States, slave owning women replaced their paid wet nurses with enslaved women who had recently had children. Because of this, breastfeeding became seen as an act that was demeaning and uncultured. Unfortunately, this toxic culture surrounding breastfeeding caused more and more mothers to turn the job over to their slaves. At the peak of the slave trade, newborn babies were kidnapped from their enslaved mothers, forcing them to nurse the white children in order to relieve their breast pain. This practice led to extremely poor health in the enslaved children, due to the forced neglect and lack of proper nutrition. The Black mothers were unable to bond with their children, and Black women were forced to disregard their emotional and physical health for someone else’s child. To properly understand the racial tension today, it is necessary to reflect on the horrible practices that took place in the past. We must as a society recognize not only where inequity lies, but how it developed, and then how we are able to remedy it. The practice of wet nursing only fell away in the last century, it is not ancient history in this country.

When slavery was outlawed, formerly enslaved persons were still not equal due to the introduction of Jim Crow Laws and segregation. During this time, wet nurses were still used. Although they were considered free, Black women were still required to leave their families behind and provide life to babies that were not theirs. They were forced to leave their children and work for extremely unfair wages. The continuation of these harmful practices even after the abolition of slavery has led to a disproportionate rate of breastfeeding in modern day between women of different races. In fact, Black women were found to breastfeed at a rate of 16 percent less than their white counterparts, even in modern day. A midwife named Stephanie Devane-Johnson set out to uncover why this may be, and found that some Black women reject the idea of breastfeeding due to the historical exploitation of wet nurses. In addition, other systemic issues further aggravate the divide between breastfeeding rates. In a study performed by the Center for Disease Control, it was found that Black women are more likely than other women to have shorter maternity leaves. The study also reported that Black women are more likely to have inflexible work schedules, which can make breastfeeding increasingly difficult. In addition, an alternate CDC study found that maternity wards in primarily Black regions of the country are less likely to offer lactation support, or encourage breastfeeding postpartum. Instead, Black babies are disproportionately offered formula. While formula may be beneficial, the choice should ultimately be left up to the mother’s preference.

Visual credit: Grace Zhang, SimpliFed

As discussed in previous blog posts at SimpliFed, breastfeeding has a number of benefits. Not only for infant nutrition, but maternal health as well. It has been shown to lower the rates of certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and postpartum depression. Increasing the rates of breastfeeding in all moms is an important step to improving postpartum life for mom and baby. It’s essential to close the racial gap in breastfeeding, because disparities in one generation may lead to disparities in the next. Disrupting the cycle can help improve health outcomes for Black mothers and children alike. Moreover, understanding the complicated history of breastfeeding is important to have an open discussion about why certain mothers may choose not to breastfeed. There are a host of factors that go into this decision. By having open conversations and listening to the lived experiences of Black mothers, we can work to mend the inequalities in healthcare, and move towards a healthier future for all.

Continuing the conversation:

As previously mentioned, the point of this post is education. Allyship has many different forms, and one I believe is absolutely vital is uplifting stories of lived experiences. Below I have compiled a list of resources from Black women and writers who have discussed this topic. The resources may be formal or informal, but all are vital for hearing the stories of these moms. Please read, share, and continue to speak up on how we can improve the healthcare system.

  1. The Challenges of Breastfeeding as a Black Person” – Amani Echols
  2. Black Breastfeeding Week” – An organization aimed at reclaiming the breastfeeding narrative
  3. Black Moms Breastfeed” – An Instagram account aimed at lessening the stigma and increasing Black Breastfeeding
  4. HeyTaeMama” – An all inclusive website with digital resources, products, and testimonials, with the goal of increasing breastfeeding awareness for Women of Color