Tyra Toston Gross presented her research on “Brown Mamas Breastfeed: An analysis of African American Women’s Breastfeeding Experiences Shared Through an On-line Blog” at the 2013 Breastfeeding and Feminism conference. At the upcoming 2014 Breastfeeding and Feminism Conference she will lead a discussion session on “Exploring long-term breastfeeding in African-American women using Positive Deviance: Implications for research and practice.”
I, myself, was not breastfed. Neither were most of the people in my extended family. As an African-American woman in the field of public health, I have become fascinated with breastfeeding and its power to bond, heal and protect. During my nutrition studies in undergrad, I learned about the benefits of breastfeeding in my Nutrition of the Life Cycle course. This began my awakening.
Since I had hardly been exposed to breastfeeding as a child, I felt like the wool had pulled from over my eyes. As I continued my graduate education in public health I learned more about the benefits of breastfeeding outside of the health of the baby. Breastfeeding has benefits for the mother, financial savings, and environmental sustainability. While it seems like a win-win situation, I was saddened yet not surprised to learn about the racial disparities in breastfeeding rates. As you may know, here in the United States, African-American (Black) infants have the lowest breastfeeding rates among all racial/ethnic groups (Allen et al., 2013). Compared to White infants, Blacks had a 16.3% lower breastfeeding initiation rate in 2008 (58.9% vs. 75.2%). This gap widens when considering breastfeeding rates at 6 months (30.1% vs. 46.6%).
Reading the literature on breastfeeding and Black women, I noticed a pattern. Most of the literature that is heavily read and cited only focuses on this disparity in breastfeeding rates. Where are the reports of the Black women who have breastfed? In my own life, I have seen my younger cousins, sister-in-law and best friends all initiate breastfeeding and try, albeit with difficulty, to work it into their busy lifestyles. I became frustrated and made it my goal during my doctoral studies to find a way to spotlight the Black mothers that have triumphed over this disparity and breastfed beyond the odds.
Brown Mamas Breastfeeding Project
During one of my courses on qualitative research, a professor encouraged me to look into the blogosphere to see what breastfeeding stories I might find from Black women themselves. Eureka! I found the Brown Mamas Breastfeeding Project, started by friends Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka (SoulVegMama.com) & Jeanine Valrie (ItsBetterAtHome.com), two Black mothers (and midwives in training) who were also disappointed at the lack of attention on Black women who do choose to breastfeed.
In their call for submissions from other Black women, the bloggers wrote “If we can’t be everywhere in public, the least we can do is to make our presence known online. Our hope is to accumulate LOTS of photos by Thursday, May 5th  that will we publish on our blogs by Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 8th). We want these photos to be used to promote brown mamas sharing and receiving the beautiful gift of breastfeeding” (Sangodele-Ayoka, 2011). I was thrilled to see how successful this project was. The three questions asked in the BMBP were 1) How long have you been breastfeeding? (or how long did you breastfeed?) 2) Why did you choose to breastfeed? And 3) What do you love about breastfeeding? As a class project over about a year, I analyzed 23 stories featured on the BMBP. My goal was to better understand Black women’s experiences of breastfeeding and learn what led to their decision to breastfeed their children and how do they describe their breastfeeding experiences.
Overall, mothers had a variety of breastfeeding experiences, with some having only breastfed their youngest child for one month while others for up to 27 months. Reasons regarding why mothers decided to breastfed included having positive attitudes, knowledge and beliefs about breastfeeding, wanting better health and development for their children, low-cost and convenience, and also having the right social support. In describing their breastfeeding experiences, mothers talked about breastfeeding as an ongoing process, which included rewards and challenges, but full of bonding and nurturance. The three overarching themes were 1) Child Health and Development – “securing a healthy future for them,” 2) Fulfilling Experience – “nurtured my patience and potential as a mom,” and 3) Importance of Social Support – “no one I knew had done it and I got little social support.”
The majority of mothers talked about the health benefits for the child, and used the word “best” in describing benefits. Surprisingly, few mentioned the maternal benefits of breastfeeding. All women noted overall positive experiences of breastfeeding with bonding as a major factor in why they decided to breastfeed. Mothers had mixed experiences of social support. Some did indicate having a family history of breastfeeding (i.e., mothers, aunts).
Healthcare Provider Support (or Lack Thereof)
However, healthcare provider support after birth was mixed. Although the length of these 23 stories were fairly short, I had some resulting questions that I’m now exploring in my dissertation research of long-term breastfeeding in Black mothers in the WIC program. Do Black mothers know about the maternal benefits of breastfeeding? From my current research, the main benefit expressed is returning to pre-pregnancy weight and size. Very few participants mentioned other maternal benefits. What are doctors discussing with Black mothers during pregnancy about breastfeeding?
It’s almost a don’t ask, don’t tell phenomenon. If the mother doesn’t bring it up to her health care provider during pregnancy or ask for more information, health care providers are unfortunately not initiating the conversation. Another interesting point from my current research is that Black mothers are not attending or do not have access to breastfeeding support groups. While La Leche League and other groups may offer support meetings, Black mothers may not feel comfortable attending. They also have a tendency to lack other breastfeeding mothers in their personal network, outside of their WIC peer counselor. Therefore, online support through social media, such as blogs, is extremely helpful. My participants mentioned finding other breastfeeding mothers on YouTube and Facebook and the lack of exposure to other Black breastfeeding women in the media.
The Work Ahead of Us
In honor of Black History month, I think it’s more than appropriate to re-highlight the phenomenal breastfeeding stories of these mothers. Below is a collage of wonderful photos that I compiled from Anayah & Jeanine’s wonderful work on the Brown Mamas Breastfeed Project. I am working with these two rock star moms to publish in a peer-reviewed journal a manuscript based on the blog analysis I did of the BMBP . They also invited me to do two guest posts during Black History Month 2012, one on ‘Answering the Call: Black Surgeon Generals All Promote Breastfeeding’ (Gross, 2012a) and ‘Adding Breastfeeding Back into our Family History and Black History’ (Gross, 2012b).
I hope in the future to publish a manuscript discussing performative inquiry, the collage below, and a monologue I created using quotes from different BMBP mothers. When I presented my work at the 2013 UNC Breastfeeding & Feminism Symposium I received many encouraging and praising remarks. Hugs and a warm ‘Thank you’ to all who attended my session. Interestingly, one of the attendees at the Symposium was actually featured in the BMBP and was excited to see her story and photos included in the analysis. For more on performative inquiry see Keen & Todres (2007) and Bagley & Cacienne (2002).
I would like to close with quotes from two moms from the BMBP that I think describe the needed direction of breastfeeding promotion and advocacy in general, but especially for Black women.
“I knew that more regular women like myself needed to do more to increase the visibility of breastfeeding in our communities.”
“…there needs to be more exposure for women in general about breastfeeding as normal but also to have the support in hospitals and at birth that breastfeeding is the expectation and to have people who feel adamantly by mom to ensure that happens (not on standby with an Enfamil bottle and a pacifier.)”
To read the individual stories or for more on the Brown Mamas Breastfeed Project, visit:
Allen, J.A., Ruowei, L., Scanlon, K., Perrine, C., Chen, J., Odom, E., & Black, C. (2013). Progress in Increasing Breastfeeding and Reducing Racial/Ethnic Differences — United States, 2000–2008 Births. CDC: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (February 8, 2013 / 62(05);77-80). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6205a1.htm?s_cid=mm6205a1_w
Gross, T. (2012a). Answering the Call: Black Surgeon Generals All Promote Breastfeeding. Retrieved from http://freetobreastfeed.com/answering-the-call-black-surgeon-generals-all-promote-breastfeeding
Gross, T. (2012b). Adding Breastfeeding Back into our Family History and Black History. Retrieved from http://freetobreastfeed.com/adding-breastfeeding-back-into-our-family-history-and-black-history/
Sangodele-Ayoka, A. (2011, May 8). BMB: My Story. Retrieved from http://www.soulvegmama.com/page/bmb-my-story/
Valrie, J. (2011). The Brown Mamas Breastfeed Project. Retrieved from http://itsbetterathome.wordpress.com/the-brown-mamas-breastfeed-project/
About the Author
Tyra Toston Gross is a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Public Health. Tyra is currently completing her qualitative dissertation using the Positive Deviance approach to explore the breastfeeding experiences of African-American women participating in the Georgia WIC program. She has her MPH degree from LSU Health Sciences Center and a B.S. in Nutritional Sciences from Louisiana State University. Tyra also has graduate certificates in Global Health, Nonprofit Management, and Qualitative Research from UGA. Tyra’s short-term goal is to continue researching maternal & child health disparities in a postdoctoral fellowship. Her long-term career goals return to her home-state of Louisiana, which has the lowest breastfeeding rates, to live in New Orleans and work in the field of public health to address health disparities and social injustices. In her spare time, Tyra enjoys serving at her church and in her community.
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