Centering Mothers’ Needs to Support Breastfeeding in Our Community

Breastfeeding provides infants and mothers with lasting health benefits. Breastfed infants have reduced risk for ear, respiratory, and gastrointestinal infections and may be less likely to develop asthma, obesity, and diabetes. Mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and breast and ovarian cancers.  

Even though numerous studies have shown the benefits of breastfeeding, only about two-thirds of Mississippi mothers report ever breastfeeding—the lowest in the nation. And the breastfeeding rates among Black mothers are even lower. The disparity in breastfeeding initiation and duration in Mississippi has been known for a while, but the question Aleshia Jones, a Gulfport lactation counselor, asks is: why?

Although the Mississippi Gulf Coast population is approximately 40 percent African American, there are few Black clinicians in Gulf Coast hospitals and clinics, and this lack of representation has been cited as a reason for lingering trust issues between Black women and healthcare providers. 

Jones has made it a part of her lifework to offer her services and words of encouragement to her community at no cost. Neighbors, members of her local church, and many women often find her by word-of-mouth referrals, noting her reputation as a staunch advocate for the health and well-being of Black babies and mothers. Her reputation and commitment are also a large part of the reason she was the first recipient of the SHEA (Sharing Health Education and Awareness) Myrtle Evelyn Davis Public Health Trailblazer Award in 2019.

 

 

Breaking Down the Barriers to Breastfeeding

According to a 2015 survey conducted by the National Immunization Survey-Child, Black women were more likely than their white counterparts to have incomes at or below the federal poverty level and receive Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children benefits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shares these and other statistics on its website as contributing factors to the racial breastfeeding disparity in the United States. However, this selection of data points only tells part of the story. Jones adamantly asserts “feeling like you have that support and encouragement” is the main barrier Black mothers face, and it is not represented in the majority of surveys.

These data points do not display or demonstrate the sustained and significant barriers of entry Black women face when it comes to breastfeeding. For example, some Black women may not be prepared to breastfeed after delivery because they have not been provided adequate information or support. A recent PBS NewsHour article cites CDC research that shows hospital maternity wards serving larger Black populations are less likely to help Black women initiate breastfeeding after giving birth or offer lactation support following delivery. Black mothers are more often offered formula, which is often seen as convenient, especially when Black mothers tend to have to return to work shortly after giving birth and are confronted with “inflexible work hours” that make nursing and expressing milk extremely difficult. 

Jones says that having two children under the age of three at home also makes breastfeeding more challenging, and she urges healthcare providers and community advocates to change their perspective on who needs breastfeeding support and who faces obstacles. “We have to get out of the mind-frame that African American women on the Gulf Coast are automatically low-income and that they’re the only ones suffering,” says Jones. She emphasizes that there are plenty of women from various backgrounds facing the same barriers.

Healthcare providers and advocates need to understand the specific cultural and social norms for Black women across the socioeconomic spectrum. Jones explains that a lack of diversity in hospitals and healthcare settings, specifically a lack of Black women in key roles, is a hindrance to Black women breastfeeding. 

“It can be difficult when you don’t have somebody helping you that looks like you,” Jones reasons. “Sometimes you might not feel like they truly understand what you’re going through.” According to data from the American Association of Medical Colleges, most physicians are white and male, and most Black physicians—more than 40 percent—are primary care physicians, which means they are likely not providing care and counsel to Black women who are pregnant. In response to this, SHEA enlisted Jones to be one of many faces of an educational campaign with content specifically tailored to educate Black mothers. 

 

Stepping Up to Support Black Women’s Decision to Breastfeed

Beyond the systemic and economic barriers, Jones believes the biggest issue Black women on the Mississippi Gulf Coast face is a lack of support: physical and emotional. “Even if you don’t understand, even if you don’t agree with [a woman’s decision to breastfeed], support is the biggest thing,” Jones says. “[That] looks different for every woman. No matter her race. Support may look like washing a load of laundry for the mother, watching the baby while she takes a nap, or simply running her bathwater.” 

Jones emphasizes that every mother needs different types and degrees of support because they’re all at different levels. The SHEA campaign was created with the express purpose of providing education and support for Black women on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, using its website and social media channels as platforms to connect and communicate with women from all walks of life.

 

It Starts With Caring

A woman’s breastfeeding experience, including her needs and challenges, is directly tied to her cultural background and understanding. A critical first step is providing Black women with educational and informational resources that speak to their specific experience, which also means ensuring they can see themselves in the images and language that is used.

One of Jones’ favorite quotes is from former President Theodore Roosevelt, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” She believes that statement speaks volumes and should guide the efforts to increase breastfeeding in the Black community. “Black women have to know you truly care,” she adds.

Caring means taking the time to understand the unique challenges Black women experience. Caring means having an open dialogue about how healthcare systems and communities need to change to support Black women and families. Caring means working to reduce health disparities by any means necessary and sustaining efforts with and in Black communities to improve health.

To learn more ways you can support efforts to improve health among Black women on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, visit www.sheahealth.org/advocates

 

Find out more about the health benefits of breastfeeding, the importance of getting a flu vaccine, and more fun facts in our SHEA Breastfeeding Mini-Magazine.

Interview With Dr. Vivian Malone

Women have made up 80 percent of the education workforce for the past five years, according to the most recent data from the Mississippi Department of Education, and more than one out of every ten teachers in traditional public schools are under the age of 30, which means many teachers may be at an age where they are starting or adding to their families. Breastfeeding at work can be challenging for many women, and teachers are not exempt from those challenges.

Dr. Vivian Malone, head principal at Popp’s Ferry Elementary School in Biloxi and a member of the Pascagoula-Gautier School Board of Trustees, shared her perspective on breastfeeding and the roles schools play in promoting healthy behaviors among employees and parents with us.

Let’s talk a little bit about your personal experience with breastfeeding. Did you breastfeed your children? I did not breastfeed my children. I have three children, who are 30, 25, and 19. When I was younger, breastfeeding was just not promoted as much as it is now. But I know for a fact my mother and grandmother breastfed.

What is your view on breastfeeding today? I believe breastfeeding is a very healthy choice for mothers as well as their babies. More than that, it is less costly than formula. I often tell the story of how my daughter had a hard time adjusting to formula, and my doctor never once suggested that I breastfeed. I think that would have been much easier for her and me because I tried so many different formulas. When I meet young mothers, I do encourage them to consider breastfeeding. It brings your baby closer to you, and breastfed babies tend to be healthier.

Is there any specific advice or words of encouragement you provide mothers who are considering breastfeeding? My words of encouragement would be not to allow someone, especially someone who has never breastfed, to discourage you. Don’t be embarrassed by it. Breastfeeding is natural. Don’t be afraid to work and breastfeed. It is possible to do both. I would suggest speaking about it with your supervisor to see what has been put in place for breastfeeding mothers.

When it comes to the education system, do you feel employees receive the amount of support they need to breastfeed and comfortably come back to work? Most teachers are female and of childbearing age. I can speak specifically about my school. I tell my teachers to not be hesitant to tell me if they have decided to breastfeed. We have set aside a room that is not a bathroom and camera-free, so they can have the privacy they need. [Teachers that are breastfeeding] have a team teacher able to step in for them throughout the day so they can pump when they need to.

I have heard other women talk about how their supervisors were not accommodating, and if they wanted to breastfeed, they would have to go into a bathroom. It didn’t feel sanitary for them to do that, so we made sure to create a comfortable and sanitary place for breastfeeding teachers in our building. 

Are there any additional ideas you have to promote breastfeeding in the workplace? We need more conversation about it. Make sure supervisors are more comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding. No one talks about it. We could implement staff development for our supervisors on how to properly communicate with employees that are breastfeeding or plan to in the future.

So, when it comes to low breastfeeding rates among Black women on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, what can be done to boost those rates? In our health departments and OB-GYN facilities, breastfeeding should be promoted more. There should be more reading materials provided on the benefits of breastfeeding. A lot of women just don’t know. Probably because their mothers didn’t breastfeed either.

I think teaching children and young adults earlier on about breastfeeding is also a great idea. Our school district offers Family & Life Dynamics classes and at some point, students have to take a babydoll or an egg home and pretend to be parents. Those classes could easily incorporate the topic of breastfeeding.

 

Find out more about the health benefits of breastfeeding, the importance of getting a flu vaccine, and more fun facts in our SHEA Breastfeeding Mini-Magazine.

Creating a Community of Support for Black Moms Interested in Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding a newborn can be an exciting time for a new mother. However, for some women, there is a very real fear that might accompany, and sometimes overpower, their feelings of excitement. Peer support during breastfeeding can help ease breastfeeding anxiety and increase the likelihood mothers will breastfeed exclusively for six months—the amount of time recommended by pediatricians.

Baby cafés are designed to help new parents navigate the joys and challenges of caring for their infant in a community of peers with support from health professionals. During regular sessions, mothers are able to share stories and resources, including advice about the unique breastfeeding experience Black women have.

Tina Fritz, a registered nurse and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, facilitates the baby café at Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula.Her goal is to create a safe space where pregnant and new mothers feel comfortable sharing stories, asking questions, and connecting with other women. 

“We usually have a group discussion,” Fritz says. “Whatever the parents want to talk about, that’s what we talk about. My job is to make sure that correct information about breastfeeding is being shared and that mothers have the resources they need to breastfeed successfully.”

Although new parents often hear about the benefits of breastfeeding for the baby, Fritz says it’s essential for women to know about the health benefits for mothers. “Breastfeeding protects mothers from diabetes, heart disease, and breast cancer. The more exclusively and the longer a mother breastfeeds, the greater the protection against those diseases.”

In addition to peer support and trusted advice, one of the other benefits of participating in a baby café is the opportunity to have an infant weighed before and after a mom breastfeeds. “A lot of moms love doing a pre- and a post-feed weight, the difference between the weights gives us a concrete number that tells us the amount of milk the baby got during that feeding,” Fritz says. “That information is reassuring to mothers who worry their baby is not getting enough milk.”

The Singing River and Merit Health Hospital baby cafés are open for all pregnant and nursing moms, regardless of where their baby was delivered. The Gulf Coast Breastfeeding Center is privately owned and operated by an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in Hancock county. More information about baby cafés on the Gulf Coast can be found at sheahealth.org/breastfeeding.

Find out more about the health benefits of breastfeeding, the importance of getting a flu vaccine, and more fun facts in our SHEA Breastfeeding Mini-Magazine.