Presenting Breastfeeding As A Choice Is Contributing To Black Infant Deaths
Kimberly Seals Allers
The current and much-needed national conversation regarding America’s black maternal and infant mortality crises is missing a critical thread: the role that breastfeeding plays in saving the lives of black infants. It’s an important point to make, particularly as World Breastfeeding Week starts Wednesday.
Studies show that even college-educated black women disproportionately give birth to babies who die during infancy from complications related to birth size and weight. Nationally, black babies die at more than twice the rate of white babies. And some areas of the country have it worse than others; in prosperous San Francisco, black infants die at a rate of 9.6 per 1,000 compared to a rate of 2.1 per 1,000 for white infants.
Breast milk can be lifesaving for premature infants, who often have underdeveloped guts and compromised immune systems. But black women have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the country, which means the babies who need breast milk the most aren’t getting it.
And this isn’t a new issue. For more than 40 years, stark racial disparities have existed between white and black breastfeeding rates, particularly when you look at women who exclusively breastfeed for six months and who exclusively breastfeed for 12 months (the gold standard of infant nutrition as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics). According to recent CDC data, only 17 percent of black infants were still breastfeeding at 12 months, whereas nearly double the rate of white infants met that standard.
Given the high stakes, it’s imperative to better understand why more black women aren’t choosing to or able to continue breastfeeding after birth.