Baltimore’s First Black Breastfeeding Week Celebration

By Nora Simmons

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Black babies have an infant mortality rate of nearly double that of White babies — at 11.4/ 1000 live births. Image by Rafael Edwards on Flickr.

On a late sunny afternoon in August, in Baltimore’s Milton-Montford neighborhood, Baltimore Healthy Start hosted its first-ever Black Breastfeeding Week Celebration. I had the privilege of attending the Baltimore Healthy Start event. I learned from the advocates, educators, medical professionals, and community members who work to support breastfeeding among Black families across the State of Maryland.

Black Breastfeeding Week was created to upend the dominant narrative and celebrate the inherent strength and unique breastfeeding experiences of Black parents.

The ability to safely and comfortably breastfeed your child is an essential aspect of reproductive justice (1). Research on racial and ethnic disparities in breastfeeding suggests that presently, Black women have the lowest rate of breastfeeding initiation out of any racial group, at 64% (2). One of the founders of Black Breastfeeding Week, Kimberly Seals Allers, explains that this disparity is the product of historical, economic, environmental, social, and political forces. These origins are rooted in the country’s legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism (3,4). The Breastfeeding movement is one that White women have politically and professionally monopolized for decades (3), which has perpetuated a primarily White, middle-class perspective on breastfeeding.

Black Breastfeeding Week was created to upend the dominant narrative and celebrate the inherent strength and unique breastfeeding experiences of Black parents. Black Breastfeeding Week is celebrated from August 25th to the 31st, during the final week of National Breastfeeding Month (5).

The origins of Black Breastfeeding Week can be traced to a group of advocates, scholars, and service providers. They created the organization and the annual campaign to celebrate Black families breastfeeding (5). The founding committee members include Allers (an author, speaker, advocate, and strategist for maternal and infant health) with Kiddada Green (the executive director of Black Mothers Breastfeeding, co-founder of the Black Breastfeeding Caucus and Mommy-Friendly Detroit) and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka (CNM, MSN, MSEd is a nurse-midwife, thought leader, editor and program associate at MomsRising)(5). Each year since 2013 the campaign has hosted online Black Breastfeeding Week events and supported local events across the country.

Black Breastfeeding Week was created to call attention to the victories of Black women not represented in the National Breastfeeding Month narrative.

These health benefits are especially important, as Black babies have an infant mortality rate of nearly double that of White babies — at 11.4/ 1000 live births.

Baltimore Healthy Start achieves the mission of supporting the health of women and infants by recognizing the social determinants of health. Baltimore Healthy Start works with families by meeting them where they are — through a wide variety of mobile services and programs like home visiting, family planning, group classes, mental health screenings and much more (6). This organization is one of the 105 federally funded Healthy Start programs all over the country (6).

I spoke to the Executive Director of Baltimore Healthy Start, Lashelle Stewart. She was excited to hold the first annual Black Breastfeeding Celebration and to share resources with Healthy Start clients and community members. Looking over the agenda of the event, I could see why. The day’s programming included activities like creating your own teething necklace or bracelet, Mother/Baby/Supporter Photoshoots, picture frame designing, and a kids’ play corner. Throughout the celebration, information sessions were conducted by experts on breastfeeding. They ranged in topics from “Increasing Milk Supply and Pumping While Returning To Work or School,” to “Nutrition and Breastfeeding,” to a round table discussion on challenging and successful Breastfeeding experiences.

Vendors also noted the importance of creating a cultural and demographic shift in the breastfeeding industry by challenging systemic barriers that have historically prevented people of color from becoming lactation consultants.

The vendors’ list boasted organizations dedicated to breastfeeding and maternal and infant health. Representatives from across the state included: Baltimore Health Department WIC, Hello Baby, Johns Hopkins WIC, Maryland Breastfeeding Coalition, Maryland Excels, Stork’s Nest Program from UMMC, and The Bloom Collective. They came from a variety of training backgrounds but were all dedicated to supporting Black mothers and their breastfeeding journeys.

As I walked around the grassy lawn talking to each vendor, they described the crucial health benefits of breastfeeding, such as immunity, healthy development, and reducing the risk of infection (7). These health benefits are especially important, as Black babies have an infant mortality rate of nearly double that of White babies (4) at 11.4/ 1000 live births (8). Vendors also noted the importance of creating a cultural and demographic shift in the breastfeeding industry by challenging systemic barriers that have historically prevented people of color from becoming International Board-Certified Lactation Consultants through a process riddled with barriers and employment discrimination (4,9).

August is over, nights are cooling down, and school is back in session. However, the dedicated service providers at Baltimore Healthy Start and all of the vendors in attendance at the event continue their mission to support breastfeeding families and addressing the racial disparities in breastfeeding and maternal and infant health.

Looking for ways to be an ally during Black Breastfeeding Week 2020? Explore the organizations mentioned in this article and support their hard work!

1. Cretaz, B. d. l. (2015). 5 Reasons You Should Care About Breastfeeding Even If You’re Not a Nursing Parent. Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from Everyday Feminism website: https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/08/why-care-about-breastfeeding/

2. Anstey E.H., Chen J, Elam-Evans L.D., Perrine C.G. (2017) Racial and Geographic Differences in Breastfeeding — United States, 2011–2015. 66:723–727. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6627a3

3. Allers, K. S. (2019). Dear White Women: Are You Behind What’s Suppressing Black Breastfeeding Rates? We. News. Retrieved from We News Covering Women’s Issues, Changing Women’s Lives website: https://womensenews.org/2019/08/dear-white-women-are-you-behind-whats-suppressing-black-breastfeeding-rates/

4. Aller, K. S. (2015). Top Five Reasons We Need A Black Breastfeeding Week. Retrieved from http://blackbreastfeedingweek.org/why-we-need-black-breastfeeding-week/

5. Black Breastfeeding Week. (2018). About Black Breastfeeding Week Retrieved from http://blackbreastfeedingweek.org/

6. Baltimore Healthy Start. (2019). We Believe in Investing in Baltimore’s Families. Retrieved from https://baltimorehealthystart.org/about/

7. Eidelman, Arthur I., and Richard J. Schanler. “Breastfeeding and the use of human milk.” Pediatrics (2012).

8. Center for Disease Control. (March 27, 2019). Infant Mortality. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/infantmortality.htm

9. Thomas, E. V. (2017). “ Why Even Bother? They Are Not Going To Do It”: Racism and Medicalization in the Lactation Profession

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