To be honest, before becoming pregnant, I never really even thought about breastfeeding. It didn’t cross my mind. I never imagined what it would be like. I don’t think I even knew of anyone that actually nursed their child in real life — if I did, I didn’t realize it then. Breastfeeding just didn’t seem like a thing in my world.
Even after finding out I was pregnant and being thrown into prepping for my new role as a mom, I still didn’t give the whole breastfeeding thing a thought. During one of my initial appointments, my nurse handed me a thick pamphlet with a beautiful brown baby on the front all about the benefits of breastfeeding. I flipped through the pages about colostrum and nipple confusion. I grazed the paragraphs about how miraculous babies were for tiny humans fresh out of their protective wombs. It all felt so important and big to me at that moment and, although I didn’t realize how much of a responsibility and challenge the journey would be, I knew I wanted to, at the very least give it a try.
Moments after my son was born, my nurse immediately put him onto my breast. It’s one of the first pictures that I have of him. It was painful but joyous. I didn’t know if it’d last past his first week of life or even past those first few moments but I did know that I’d never felt a connection to another living being like I did then. After being set up to rest for the night and having my son in the hospital nursery so that I could actually get some sleep, my attentive and supportive nurse dutifully came to my room every two hours to walk me down to the nursery to breastfeed my baby boy.
That first night was a fog but I have always been grateful for the nurse that understood how important breastfeeding was for me
She then, with a happy disposition, walked me arm and arm back to my room and physically assisted me in pumping while I tried to force myself to stay awake after 17 hours of labor. I would then sleep for an hour or so before she appeared in my doorway again to do it all over. That first night was a fog but I have always been grateful for the nurse that understood how important nursing was for me and the breastfeeding support she provided.
But, here’s the thing; I now realize that I am one of the luckier black women that embark on this journey to breastfeed. Studies have shown that black mothers breastfeed their babies less frequently than white mothers. The CDC reported that 62% of black babies being breastfed compared to the 79% of white babies. Those numbers dip even lower after six months with 36% of black babies continuing their journey and 52% of white babies. The wild stereotypes out there could leave you assuming it’s solely because of some socioeconomic situation or because black mothers don’t value that bond between mother and baby as much as white mothers but the saddening truth is that black mothers are not supported the way that we should be. In a 2011 report, the CDC found that areas where the black population is 12.2% or higher, the hospitals in those areas are failing to create a supportive environment necessary for black mothers to establish a positive and fruitful breastfeeding relationship with their newborn babies. The study looked at 10 indicators that hospitals should be following to create an environment where nursing can happen, like educating patients and putting the baby on the breast within an hour of birth — many of the hospitals in the black neighborhoods simply failed to do so.
Much of it is a blur, but what is crystal clear is how much my core people supported me and my breastfeeding journey.
By the time my son and I were five months into breastfeeding, I was back in school to finish up my last semester in college. I was not ready to end it there, though. I’d finally gotten over that rug burn like nipple pain and was actually enjoying the sweet and loving bond we were creating. Throughout the day, while at school and work and even at home, I pumped. My life quickly became a cycle of feedings and pumping with huge meals (and choking down endless mugs of lactation teas) in between to help my body keep up with the demanding milk production.
My son’s paternal grandmother, his daytime caregiver at the time, would take my bags of milk and make sure to feed them to my son throughout the day and save any left over milk for emergencies. Again, thinking back to those wild days much of it is a blur, but what is crystal clear is how much my core people supported me and my breastfeeding journey. There were no talks of giving up and in my roughest days of waking up at 4 in the morning to start pumping to make sure I had enough milk, that support was like a ray of sunshine.
Again, I realize now how lucky I was. I was surrounded by friends and family that had breastfed their babies before and encouraged me to keep going. For some black women, that is not the case. Despite the desire to nurse until there is a feeling of completion, some black mothers do not have the support system at home, whether that be friends that have experienced nursing a baby, or just a caregiver that will make sure their baby is being fed expressed breast milk — even if it is not as convenient — and that is so necessary.
I talk about my two-year breastfeeding journey, well, a lot. I am proud of what my body was able to do because it wasn’t easy. But, more than that, by sharing my experience with breastfeeding and how much it gave me and my baby, I aim to change the conversation around black women nursing their babies. I hope that by talking about breastfeeding as a young black mother myself, I might encourage another black mother to demand her hospital provide her with the tools she needs to try nursing. I hope that my experience encourages black mothers to also share their experiences breastfeeding their littles so that we can create this beautiful community of support, education, and encouragement and make nursing more accessible in our communities.
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