2017 “Chocolate Milk Day” celebrating Black breastfeeding families in the community.

Good health starts with breastfeeding.

It’s natural but not always easy.

Breastfeeding requires patience and commitment.

These are all phrases that are true, and I use them often because of their relevance to the health of African-Americans. Diabetes, hypertension and coronary heart disease all disproportionately affect African-Americans. Although heart disease kills more women than breast cancer, we know that African-American women often have a more aggressive form of breast cancer that is often detected (diagnosed) at later stages than women of other ethnicities.

The good news is breastfeeding is a protective factor against breast cancer and according to a recent article in OBG Management, breastfeeding for longer than 12 months reduces the risk of breast cancer by 26 percent. Breastfeeding decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes by 15 percent compared to women who do not breastfeed, women who breastfed for 12 months or more have a 12 percent decreased risk for hypertension. Women who breastfed for more than 2 years had a 37 percent decreased risk of heart attack compared with women who never breastfeed. These are numbers that are too significant to ignore, which is why I believe that breastfeeding is imperative for good health.

Black women are two to six times more likely to die from complications in pregnancy than white women. The infant health benefits are plentiful and well known by most women, but there’s less known about the maternal health benefits from this healthful practice. And often what is not discussed is the resistance by African-American women to breastfeeding due to historical trauma. The control relegated over African-American women and their bodies in slavery included forced breeding and wet nursing. This oppressive experience had a negative impact on attitudes towards voluntarily breastfeeding their own children, an attitude which carried through generations. Today, this view impacts breastfeeding rates among African-American women who continue to lag behind all other ethnic groups in the U.S. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, the African-American infant mortality rate is twice the rate of white infants, but breastfeeding could decrease this rate by as much as 50 percent which makes increasing their breastfeeding rates even more imperative.

So, breastfeeding’s potential impact on infant mortality should not be ignored. According to Futures without Violence, a health and social justice nonprofit, factors related to systemic, institutional and historical racism perpetuate poor maternal health and birth outcomes for Black women. Racism is believed to contribute to low birth weight infants, high maternal morbidity and high infant mortality rates. Because of this Black Women’s Maternal Health Week, which took place April 11 – April 17, was developed to draw special attention to infant mortality and maternal morbidity rates as an important public health and social justice issue that we all need to be concerned about as we work toward eliminating health disparities and birth inequities in this country.

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