Despite the odds, I managed to breastfeed both of my babies for over a year each. It wasn’t easy, but it’s easily one of my biggest accomplishments. We faced many obstacles along the way, starting with the fact that I honestly didn’t understand exactly what breastfeeding was until a few months before I got pregnant with my first child. I was 24 at the time, and had never seen anyone breastfeed until my closest friend gave birth to her first baby a few months before I got pregnant with mine.
Throughout my pregnancy I watched her diligently breastfeed her baby through mastitis, a difficult return to work post-partum and many other challenges and eventually switch to a combination of breast and formula feeding. We discussed the pros and cons of breastfeeding at length, and I decided that I would give it my best effort once my baby was born.
I was relatively young when I decided to have a baby, and money was obviously a huge factor. Breastfeeding cuts the cost of having a baby down massively, so that was reason enough alone for my decision. But I don’t do anything without researching, educating myself and planning, so I soon learned of the many health benefits of breastfeeding as well. I was determined to succeed at it, and perhaps even to my own surprise I did (along with a bit of formula supplementation).
You see, I grew up just above the poverty level in a Puerto Rican household in a primarily African American neighborhood and for a number of reasons, economically disadvantaged women and women in the United States who belong to racial and ethnic minorities have much lower breastfeeding rates compared to White women with higher incomes.
“Mothers with lower rates of breastfeeding tend to be young, low-income, African American, unmarried, less educated, participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), overweight or obese before pregnancy, and more likely to report their pregnancy was unintended. These final two points are important to highlight because African American and Hispanic women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese and the largest number of unintended pregnancies,” states a report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
So it’s no surprise that growing up, I learned nothing at all about breastfeeding. I only have two breastfeeding-related memories at all. I remember a family friend and neighbor trying to dry up her breastmilk after giving birth, and I remember that one mother of a child at my mother’s daycare would occasionally bring in pumped milk and I thought it looked funny. That’s it. Nothing else until my 20s. So yes, it wasn’t until I was an adult and saw my White friends breastfeeding their babies that I even discovered what it meant to breastfeed and realized that it was an option for me too.
Everyone in my family watched with curiosity as I openly breastfed my first child and listened carefully as I spouted off the benefits. Many of the women in my family, confirmed that after having their babies they never even thought of it as an option—most of their obstetricians gave them drugs to dry up their milk while they were still in the hospital without even asking and certainly without explaining the benefits of breastfeeding.
Some of breastfeeding’s benefits include lowered risk of obesity and Type II diabetes for mother and baby, stronger immune system for baby, lower risk of SIDS, higher IQ in later childhood, faster post-partum weight loss, decreased risk of breast and other cancers and many others.
While I absolutely agree that a fed baby is best no matter how you choose to feed your baby, how can we make good choices if we are never even aware of the options? Information, proper medical care and support all play a huge role in breastfeeding success, and as someone who has fought to break the cycle of socio-economic and racial disadvantages, it saddens me to know that the mothers and babies who could benefit the most from breastfeeding know so little about it and have so few positive examples of it to look to.