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A Message For Black Moms: Keep Calm And Carry On Breastfeeding

Dale Seabrook with her baby at a CinnaMoms event in 2017. (Photo by Belen Rediet/PHFE WIC)
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Walk into the Slauson Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program office in South Los Angeles and you'll see families registering for food benefits, children playing, tiny newborns getting their weight checked.

And on one of the doors, which happens to be a lactation room, there's a sign that says, "Keep calm and carry on breastfeeding."

The message is for all of the families who come into the office. But it's especially geared toward black women, who have much lower breastfeeding rates compared with white and Hispanic women.

During the last week of August, which also happens to be National and World Breastfeeding Awareness Month, maternal and child health advocates focus on getting the word out to black moms in particular with Black Breastfeeding Week.

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Breastfeeding has lots of benefits for infants and moms and is seen as a small part of the equation that could help bring down the high rate of black infant mortality. In L.A. County, black babies are three times more likely to die than white babies in their first year of life.

With hopes of changing those statistics, this WIC center and five others across Los Angeles offer a support group for new and expecting black moms -- and to help combat the stigma that breastfeeding has sometimes carried.

"Breastfeeding is so much easier," one mom told the group at a meeting this spring, "besides the people and their opinions -- that's like the only negative thing about it."


A sign on the window of the lactation room at the Slauson WIC. (Photo by Priska Neely/KPCC)

This support group, called CinnaMoms, tries to "spice things up" for black moms and give them the tools to start and continue breastfeeding. More than 500 women have participated in meetings like this in the last three years. There are lots of similar groups popping up around the country.

"You have your seasoned mom over here who may be pregnant with her second child. And then I can see the prenatal mom over here, and they're having those sister-to-sister conversations: 'Girl, this is what you need to do,' " said Toncé Jackson, a public health education specialist for WIC who started the groups.

They learn best practices from the lactation consultants leading the sessions, talk about how to empower themselves in the doctor's office and spend a lot of time commiserating over the opinions of others.

One mom shared, "My sister would see me breastfeeding him and she'd be like, 'Ew. Can you stop?'" She said her child's father said he was so used to seeing bottles and formula, he never knew about breastfeeding until she started doing it.


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"I've been told several times by health care providers that they don't even talk to African American women about breastfeeding prenatally because they're not going to do it."

About 80 percent of white and Hispanic moms start breastfeeding after their baby is born. But the percentage of black moms who do is a lot lower -- just 64 percent, according to the latest results of a surveyfrom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Those numbers take a dive across racial and ethnic groups as kids age; only 1 in 4 infants is exclusively breastfed by the time they are 6 months old.)

"We know that babies who are breastfed... have a reduced risk for a whole range of conditions," said Erica Anstey, a program director with the infant feeding team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It lowers the risk of ear infections, gastrointestinal infections and even Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. And there are benefits for mom, too.

But as breastfeeding rates are going up overall, Anstey said, "we're a little concerned that the gap appears to be widening." That's because breastfeeding rates are going up faster among white and Hispanic women.

Black women face a lot of obstacles if they want to breastfeed. They often return to work earlier after giving birth and are less likely to have access to supports like lactation rooms for pumping.

When it comes to starting breastfeeding in the first place, experiences in the hospital are critical. Black women may not have been educated about breastfeeding benefits in prenatal visits or the delivery room.

Studies of hospital practices have shown that hospitals in zip codes with more black residents were less likely to have supportive breastfeeding practices.

"I've been told several times by health care providers that they don't even talk to African American women about breastfeeding prenatally because they're not going to do it," said Kimarie Bugg, a nurse practitioner and lactation consultant with the non-profit Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE).

Public health researcher Chelsea McKinney did another study examining the factors that contribute to the gap -- education, income, familial support -- and found that the biggest one was actually whether or not the child received formula while in the hospital. Getting formula in the hospital is a huge deterrent to continuing at home.

"When you go to the hospital, you really have to say, I want to exclusively breastfeed my baby, I do not want them to be fed formula, and I want them to stay in the room with me so that's more likely to happen," McKinney said. "But who would really know that if no one tells you?"

CinnaMoms tackles that message head-on in the sessions.

"We do have the power to tells the doctors, the staff, 'I want to breastfeed,'" lactation consultant Rhonda Clayton told the group at a session this spring. "We have the power to tell our partners, 'I want to breastfeed.'"


Tasha Deshone (right) with her son and her cousin, Ryan Wright (left), and her daughter. (Photo by Belen Rediet/PHFE WIC)

Tasha Deshone went from breastfeeding skeptic to "Super CinnaMom," as she's known in the group.

When one of the lactation consultants at WIC approached her about joining last year, she had a quick response, "No, I'm not gonna breastfeed."

With her older three children, she'd tried just briefly. She said she didn't know about the benefits and she thought it would hurt too much.

But she was persuaded to give it a chance. She won a free pump in a raffle and found the support of other moms she could turn to when she felt like she wasn't producing enough milk.

"I had the support of people who were actually going through what I was going through," she said.

Her son Elijah is nine months old now and she's been breastfeeding exclusively the whole time.


CinnaMoms is holding a community event for Black Breastfeeding Week on Thursday.

If you want to find other lactation support group for women of color, Los Angeles-based lactation consultant Nekisha Killings put together this awesome spreadsheet with groups around the country.

And Breastfeed LA has a directory of resourcesthroughout L.A. County.

"So often we blame moms for not doing things -- not breastfeeding, not doing things perfectly," said social workers and lactation consultant Camie Jae Goldhammer. "What I would want to say to moms, particularly moms of color, [is] that breastfeeding is important -- it's really important and that it's really hard. But there's amazing work happening. Find those resources."

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