Breastfeeding Statistics Explored; Racism in Lactation

Written by: Jess Kimball

There are major disparities in breastfeeding rates based on race. Overall, 83% of US mothers breastfeed. 85% of white mothers choose to breastfeed, but only 69% of Black mothers make that same choice. This gap has existed for as long as the government has collected data on breastfeeding rates.

When looking at these disparities we can easily trace the poor statistics for Black mothers all the way back to slavery. Many Black enslaved mothers were not allowed to breastfeed. They were instead forced to be wet nurses for white mothers. The term ‘wet nurse’ describes someone who breastfeeds another person’s baby. Historians report many reasons for using a wet nurse. Some believe that wet nursing dates back to the 1600s when white parents thought it would protect their babies from malaria. Others believe white parents viewed breastfeeding as a low-class task and disliked that it was hard to nurse in fashionable clothing. Wet nursing was extremely popular in the 1700s in Europe but peaked in popularity in the 1800s.

Most enslaved women were not allowed to breastfeed their own children. As soon as an enslaved person gave birth, they were quickly assigned a baby to a wet nurse. Approximately 20% of white women with slaves used enslaved people as wet nurses. During the peak of wet nursing, many newborns were kidnapped from Black parents. While grieving the loss of their own newborn, they were forced to feed another person’s baby. Sometimes, they felt like they had to do this to reduce the pain from their milk coming in, but not having their own baby to nurse. Slaves who refused to wet nurses were often milked and beaten.

Some enslaved people kept the babies they were nursing in their homes until the parents wanted them back. This led to a lack of bonding between the parents and baby, as well as many white babies dying while staying in poor living conditions enslaved people were confined to. Many enslaved people were rejected by their husbands because of their wet nursing and the loss of their own newborns. When slavery was abolished, some people still chose to work as wet nurses in secret. They were paid better than they would have been in other professions but were shunned if their profession was discovered. The effects of this injustice are still seen today.

Today, we still see institutional racism engrained in healthcare practices. Black mothers are often not encouraged or supported in nursing. They are provided formula at much higher rates than white mothers.  Black people have higher rates of breast cancer, but breastfeeding could be a method of reducing that rate. Furthermore, research suggests that twice as many Black babies die each year as white babies due to shorter breastfeeding duration. In some cultures, elders do not support breastfeeding because of misinformation and bias that has been set.

Breastfeeding has benefits for all mothers and babies. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of ovarian and breast cancer, promotes bonding between mother and baby, and promotes oxytocin release which can help with post-birth recovery, bonding, and good perinatal mental health.

These low breastfeeding rates are a product of systemic racism. Breastfeeding should be encouraged and supported in all populations. Parents should be provided with educational, informational, and clinical support when necessary. Increasing access to lactation care for Black mothers can lead to better health outcomes for mothers and babies, as well as economic growth nationwide.

At Global Foundation for Girls (GFG), we are active thought partners, serving global communities of birthing persons in order to advance and support the advocacy movement. We lead webinars and trainings for providers including doulas, social workers, childbirth educators, and more! To learn more about our upcoming trainings click here!

Jess Kimball, AS, CLC, Certified Birth and Postpartum Doula, PMH-C, Certified Infant Sleep Coach