“Breastfeeding!” That’s how I answered the postpartum recovery nurse when she asked, less than 12 hours after my son’s birth, how I was planning to feed him. I answered confidently, happily, even. I was sure. I now realize that she didn’t actually present another option: It was simply, “Do you plan on breastfeeding or…?”
The final week of National Breastfeeding Awareness Month is Black Breastfeeding Week, but I was oblivious to the challenges of breastfeeding as a Black person before having my first child. Motherhood, particularly new motherhood, has always been presented as difficult. Friends and family warn you about the sleepless nights, the endless diaper changes, and the dreaded teething stage. But breastfeeding is often presented as the easy part. It’s often demonstrated as something that happens immediately and with ease. However, I would soon discover that not only was breastfeeding not immediate or easy–it was single-handedly one of the most difficult things I have ever experienced. And I was woefully unprepared for the now seemingly obvious alternative outcome: what if breastfeeding isn’t easy? What if it doesn’t work out for me right away?
My son and I had one good feeding a few hours after he was born, and then things went downhill. The combination of a squirmy newborn, painful latching (despite being told it was a perfect latch), and a new mom delirious with exhaustion, made for a perfect storm of chaos. And how could it not? The expectation that a new parent and newborn would know, right away, how to do something neither of them has ever done seems absurd to me now. But I remember the shame I felt in pushing that call button in the hospital to ask for formula because breastfeeding wasn’t working, and I wanted to make sure my baby was eating something. “Have you tried breastfeeding first?” was not the response I needed in the middle of the night, with tears in my eyes. I felt judged and invalidated. Erica Campbell, RN, IBCLC, a registered nurse and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant based in Houston, says medical professionals are often the first barriers to breastfeeding success, “I don’t think people are suffering in silence as much as they are silenced. People do express their concerns to healthcare professionals with hopes of solutions, but are often disregarded or given a “band-aid” solution. The medical disconnect leaves people feeling alone in their journeys.”
In my grief, however, I did what I’ve always done–I started to research. I needed to know if other Black birthing people went through similar breastfeeding challenges.
The weeks that followed were filled with frustration, failed attempts, and many, many tears on my part. As if all the other aspects of new motherhood weren’t enough, I was now dealing with guilt, and even more so, feelings of failure. In my grief, however, I did what I’ve always done–I started to research. I needed to know if other Black birthing people went through similar breastfeeding challenges. A quick Google search told me that Black women have the lowest breastfeeding initiation rates among all racial groups. Approximately 66 percent of Black babies were breastfed compared to almost 82 percent of white and Latinx infants. Black women also breastfeed for the shortest time, with approximately 44 percent of Black women still breastfeeding at six months, compared to 62 percent of white women, and we have far more limited access to support from IBCLCs like Campbell.
Acknowledging how systemic racism in the medical space significantly impacts breastfeeding initiation, duration, and overall success is the first step to carving out a safe, welcoming space for all feeding journeys. Campbell, a mother of two herself, became an IBCLC, because she wanted to provide the kind of help and support she wished she’d had in her own lactation experience. When I asked her about the almost non-existent Black representation of lactation consultants in the industry, Campbell acknowledged the kind of positive impact a Black woman might have for other birthing people like me who struggled. “When it came down to becoming a lactation consultant, for me, there was no racial motivation,” she says. “I did this to help others the way I would have wanted to be helped. But now I realize the importance of my presence in the feeding space.”
Campbell notes that the most common breastfeeding concerns are related to latching, but there is no one-size-fits-all salve. “The solution is always found in investigation,” she says. “It’s important to know that a solution for one person may not be the solution for another. So figuring out why these issues are happening is crucial.” She also reminds her clients of the digital resources available to birthing people who may not have easy or equitable access to IBCLCs or lactation consultants. With positive groups emerging on Facebook and Instagram, birthing people can find support, resources, tips, and tricks, or just kind, non-judgemental, understanding ears, “The internet can be your best friend here,” she says.
Breastfeeding is an incredibly beautiful, intimate, and sacred thing. But it also comes with a mind-bogglingly steep learning curve. It’s a journey that has classes, books, cookies, supplements to boost supply, and an entire industry of professionals solely dedicated to assisting with it. Breastfeeding can often feel like anything but natural. So my mantra is, “fed is best.” Those three words have become my very own rallying cry, and it’s what has carried me through on my hardest days. My child is fed, incredibly healthy, and the happiest baby you could ever meet. All my feelings of failure and guilt are my own to unpack. None of it comes from him, and I’m learning to follow his lead. When he’s ready, we’ll gradually increase breastfeeds. And if we don’t, that’s okay, too.
I reached out to my Instagram followers in those early days of frustration, desperate to know that I wasn’t alone. The responses I got were overwhelming. Almost every woman that messaged me had struggled or was currently struggling, too. I heard stories of daily tears, frustration, immense guilt, and feelings of failure. Stories exactly like mine. But the most impactful message came from a friend who reminded me that “quitting and changing the plan are not the same thing.” Those words were a gift to me, and I hope they are to any birthing people who may be struggling reading this, too. You’re doing a lot better than you think.
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