At a recent gathering, Jailon Berry chatted with other mothers about breast pumps and returning to work after maternity leave while her 4-month-old baby, Jayden, nestled up in her arms. The Twin Cities mom nursed Jayden every time he showed signs of hunger.
But breastfeeding wasn’t something Berry, who is African-American, grew up seeing in her own family.
“My sister didn’t breastfeed with my nephew. None of my cousins breastfed with their kids,” said Berry, 26, of Mounds View. “With my family, formula is more common in what people did or do.”
Berry’s experience is common in the African-American community. Breastfeeding rates have increased over the years, but a gap still exists between black and white populations in the United States. Lack of support, access to lactation consultants and historical trauma associated with wet nursing during slavery have contributed to the disparities.
“Women had moved away from breastfeeding because that was perceived as things that were equated with one’s poverty level,” said LaVonne Moore, a nurse midwife and founder of a Minneapolis support group for black nursing moms called the Chocolate Milk Club. “It felt like, ‘Wealthy white women, they have formula, so that must be the better thing to do.’”
Moore, one of the only black board-certified lactation consultants in the state, started the club to offer a supportive environment for Twin Cities black women as they navigate new breastfeeding journeys.
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Berry sat comfortably at Moore’s home-based practice, Chosen Vessels Midwifery Services, where artwork representing black women breastfeeding fills the walls. Moore offered refreshments along with tips about breastfeeding and pumping.
She connects with women online regularly and holds face-to-face mixers like this, where they share pro tips on nursing, celebrate one another’s breastfeeding milestones, or even discuss the history of race and reproduction.
“So much of this birth work is kind of a social justice issue in terms of women of color,” Moore said. “We have worked hard trying to get that momentum in the state.”
Research shows that breastfeeding is important for the health of mother and baby. It prevents serious illness and helps with children’s cognitive development and learning as they grow. Public health efforts to promote breastfeeding among black mothers are gaining traction in the state as they try to close a persistent gap: Black infants in Minnesota and across the country are twice as likely as white infants to die before their first birthday.
Some women know the benefits and plan to initiate breastfeeding as soon as their babies are born, but often find it difficult to continue as they return to work and juggle busy schedules with newborns.
For Berry and other moms, the Chocolate Milk Club is what they need during those early days of motherhood as they figure out how to manage feedings around the clock, pumping while working, and adding solid foods. At the monthly mixer, another member of the group suggested coupons Berry could use for a discount on a specific pump to help her express milk at her job.
“This was a way to learn more and to see people that look like me doing the same thing,” Berry said.
Breastfeeding data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don’t account for nuances in Minnesota’s black population. A three-year analysis beginning in 2010 found that Minnesota was one of only three states where a higher proportion of black infants were breastfed shortly after birth than white infants. The state’s initiation rate for black infants was 90.8 percent.
But the numbers were likely skewed by Minnesota’s large East African immigrant community, where breastfeeding is the norm, according to state public health officials and community advocates.
It’s why Marcia McCoy made it a priority to break down the data by cultural identity when she started as a researcher at the Minnesota Department of Health four years ago. She found that about 80 percent of African-American infants nursed shortly after they were born, compared with 94 percent of East African babies. The rate for white infants was 92 percent.
“African immigrant women come from a breastfeeding culture. They’re confident in their ability to breastfeed, and they just see it as what they’re going to do,” McCoy said. “For women who grew up in American culture, we’re still more of a bottle-feeding culture, and there is a real lack of faith that breastfeeding works.”
In the 1930s and ‘40s, American formula companies aggressively marketed their product to mothers as a higher-class alternative to breastfeeding, whether the women were black or white.
But African-American women have had a complicated relationship with breastfeeding going back to the days of slavery. Slave owners purchased black women to nurse their white babies, forcing them to hold and bond with these infants, and stop nursing their own.
Breastfeeding rates among Minnesota mothers enrolled in Women, Infants and Children, a nutrition and breastfeeding program, are lower than average — except for Somali moms.
The data suggest that low-income women in low-skill jobs don’t receive the support they need to continue breastfeeding once they return to work. They often feel they can’t advocate for their right to pump in the workplace for fear of losing their jobs.
Additionally, some African-American women and state health officials say some providers still assume black women don’t want to breastfeed, so they don’t bring up the topic at all, leading to a lack of education and encouragement.
It’s one of the reasons Moore became a midwife a number of years ago and researched the topic of breastfeeding extensively before she got her doctorate degree in nursing practice.
At the time, her niece’s unplanned pregnancy and prenatal care experience was different from her sister’s, a married woman. Moore declined to share details about her niece’s experience, but said it’s what inspired her to go into the field.
“She felt like they treated her poorly,” Moore said. “She was a single black mom.”
The Chocolate Milk Club is trying to close gaps by providing a more supportive space for black moms. Moore is also organizing the third annual Chocolate Milk Day Aug. 29, at Farview Park in Minneapolis, which is intended to promote the topic of breastfeeding and its importance to all women, including African-Americans.
A viewing and discussion of the film “Chocolate Milk: The Documentary” will be held Aug. 26, in Minneapolis.
Sierra Williams, a peer counselor with the Women, Infants and Children program, often shares her story with other black breastfeeding moms. She breastfed all five of her children, including her firstborn, whom she gave birth to at age 15. Her high school allowed her to visit her baby several times during the school day to breastfeed.
“We all come from the same struggles,” said Williams, who attended the Chocolate Milk Club mixer this month. “I think with a lot of women in the community, they’re working mothers, they’re single mothers … Just to show them that, yes, you can do this with the resources and other people behind you that are doing the same thing.”