By Mrinal Gokhale
Studies show that breast feeding has many benefits on preterm babies. August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month in the United States, and Dalvery Blackwell, BA, IBCLC, executive director of the African American Breastfeeding Network in Milwaukee is very knowledgeable on these benefits.
“Breast milk has more protein, fats and minerals and is more easily absorbed than formula,” Blackwell said. She noted that breast fed babies were at a lower risk of getting intestinal infections and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS.) Additionally, mothers who breastfeed were less likely to develop postpartum depression, type 2 diabetes or ovarian cancer.
The African American Breastfeeding Network in Milwaukee began in 2008 with the mission to promote breastfeeding as the natural, and best way to provide nourishment to children. It all began when a group of mothers and one father felt that breastfeeding was not promoted enough among communities of color.
“WIC data from 2014 shows that 54 percent of black women in Milwaukee breastfeed in the hospital compared to 80 percent of Caucasian women,” said Blackwell. She added that when it comes to children that are three months of age, just 9 percent of black mothers in Milwaukee breastfed compared to ten percent of Caucasian women.
“Since breastfeeding rates drop once women leave the hospital, AABN focuses on prenatal education and home visitation,” Blackwell said.
She also added that many disparities exist in communities of color when it comes to breastfeeding. For black women, it started during slavery.
“We were forced as slaves to be wet nurses, and the impact of this trauma is seen today through lack of social support and breastfeeding being seen as nasty,” Blackwell said. She also cited institutionalized racism as another barrier
. “Some of my white lactation consultants have told me that lactation is for them and peer work is for me. Studies also show that black neighborhoods lack Breastfeeding Friendly Designated Hospitals.”
Jolie Brox is a Milwaukee mother of four children who benefits from the AABN. Each session includes between five to 20 mothers and their children’s fathers. Childcare was available for mothers with older children and a peer father advocate would meet with the fathers.
“The fathers learn that their role is just as important,” Brox said. Although Brox breastfed all her children, she considered going the formula route during the first pregnancy five years ago.
“The WIC office told me about the AABN, and I went to the first session and my first few months of attending went well, so I continued to go for every child I had,” Brox said. “Each baby latched on faster, and I was more comfortable and patient each time.”
Brox said that she is currently going to classes with her youngest baby. She is happy with her decision to breastfeed due to the good health her children are in. “None of my kids have had to see the doctor so far other than for their checkups,” Brox said.
Since its inception, the AABN has reached 1,000 families.
The Network conducts community breastfeeding gatherings, pairing new mothers with peer counselors throughout their pregnancy as long as they breastfeed. Fathers take sessions through a peer-father-advocate. But Blackwell stressed there is still work to be done.
“Breastfeeding is a public health issue, not a lifestyle choice,” Blackwell said.