A History of Black Breastfeeding

by | Feb 5, 2024 | Blog

Ten years ago, Black Breastfeeding Week was created to shed light on the disparities in breastfeeding between Black moms and mothers of other races. A recent report shows that from 2017-2021, only 66% of Black infants in St. Louis County were breastfeeding upon discharge, compared to 91% of Asian infants and 86% of white infants. According to Kimberly Seals Allers, “the reasons for this disparity, which spans socioeconomic status, are varied and nuanced. They range from lack of support from medical professionals to a lack of role models to the historical trauma of Black women being used as wet nurses during slavery.” While breastfeeding may not be the right choice for every family, mothers deserve to choose the infant feeding option that works best for them. For far too long, this choice has been denied to Black women and birthing people. This Black History Month, let’s explore the history of Black breastfeeding.

For the nearly 250 years that slavery endured in the United States, Black women and birthing people were regularly forced to provide breast milk to the infants of their slave owners.  “A white woman’s decision to borrow, hire, or buy enslaved wet nurses often broke the already fragile yet sacred bonds enslaved mothers had with their children and must have caused familial trauma beyond our imagination,” says Seals Allers. During the Reconstruction Era, many Black women and birthing people continued working as wet nurses to white families. “They’re still doing what they did before, but now they’re doing it for very little compensation. And you have those women saying to their descendants, ‘I don’t want you to do what I had to do.’ That’s how we get to a third-generation gap where breastfeeding is not something that most people are doing.” Black women and birthing people were hired as wet nurses as late as the 1940s.

When infant formulas hit the market, formula companies aggressively targeted Black families and other families of color. “Popular marketing presented infant formula as a ‘lifestyle’ choice and as ‘the substance for sophisticates’—a line of thinking that resonated with Black communities who were historically labeled as unsophisticated and uncivilized.” During the mid-20th Century, organizations like La Leche League started popping up to create peer support networks for parents who were breastfeeding. These organizations primarily conducted outreach in white suburban communities, however, leaving Black families out of this valuable support system.

Today, on top of the long history of institutions severing Black breastfeeding practices, systemic barriers to breastfeeding are more likely to affect Black moms than moms of other races. Lower wage jobs, which are more likely to be filled by BIPOC mothers, often lack paid parental leave policies and have and inflexible working conditions, which make breastfeeding extremely difficult. Racial bias among healthcare providers also affects breastfeeding rates among Black moms, as hospitals are twice as likely to provide formula to Black infants than white infants.

In the past several years, we have seen an encouraging increase in community support for Black moms in their infant feeding journeys. Closing the disparity will take a multi-pronged approach, including providing culturally congruent support for Black breastfeeding parents, advocating for paid family leave and lactation-friendly workplaces, diversifying the field of lactation counseling, and rooting out racial bias in healthcare institutions.


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