Social stigma. Lack of employer support. Cultural norms. There are several reasons that contribute to Mississippi’s low breastfeeding rate—the lowest in the nation. Many of these factors are also strong contributors to the historically low rate of breastfeeding among African American mothers. The SHEA (Sharing Health Education & Awareness) campaign, which was launched late last year, has focused on increasing breastfeeding rates, promoting tobacco cessation, and encouraging active living with an ultimate goal of improving health of African American families, mothers, and babies.
Then, the coronavirus ruptured the social and economic foundation for thousands of women and families on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, adding yet another barrier to breastfeeding for many mothers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, African American women are overrepresented in low-wage service jobs—the types of jobs that were among the first to be eliminated once COVID-19 began rapidly spreading in Mississippi communities.
Fortunately, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act will provide some temporary relief for mothers whose current unemployment can be traced back to COVID-19. However, the stress, anxiety, and pressure many of these women face might make them less likely to consider initiating breastfeeding—a process that can be stress-inducing for some women. In addition, mothers working low-wage jobs often do not have health insurance to cover the cost of supplies and equipment like breast pumps. Even the economic assistance provided by the CARES Act cannot provide enough financial support for many women to get the supplies they need to sustain breastfeeding for at least the first six months—the amount of time recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For those mothers who may have adequate health insurance and are able to work from home, the closures of schools and child care facilities have created an additional set of daily responsibilities. Finding the time and privacy to breastfeed or pump may prove more challenging when mothers are standing in as teachers, chefs, and activity planners.
Despite all of these traditional and unexpected barriers to breastfeeding, we can improve breastfeeding rates among African American women on the Gulf Coast by creating a network of resources and support that provides tools and information mothers need to make informed decisions about their health and the health of their families. Although we have to maintain our social distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we can continue to uplift, encourage, and support mothers and ensure they all have the information and resources they need to be healthy right now and well into the future. When our communities work together to coordinate activities, collaborate on solutions, and build a network of support, we can make a measurable and meaningful difference in the health of African American families, mothers, and babies—and in the health of everyone on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
For more information on the SHEA campaign and valuable tips on breastfeeding, visit www.sheahealth.org.