An Intergenerational Black Infant Feeding Story (cross-post at Future of Personal Health.)
Author and Interviewer: Kiddada Green, Founding Executive Director, Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association and Detroit native.
This is an intergenerational infant feeding story of a mother and daughter; Desiree Newkirk and Malikah Garner, both natives of Detroit, MI. The interview unravels a system that has historically failed Black women and babies. There are 5 themes threaded throughout:
- Invisibility: The refusal of mass media, hospital systems or public health officials to acknowledge or bring to the forefront Black women who do breastfeed, perpetuates the stereotype that Black women do not breastfeed.
- Lack of culturally appropriate medical support: Over and over again Black women report being treated insensitively, dishonorably and inhumane in hospital settings. Breastfeeding rates have been shown to improve when maternity care teams have lactation specific training with an emphasis on culture.
- Role models: Black families and popular culture have limited examples of Black persons practicing breastfeeding behaviors to emulate. It can be common for a woman to lack an immediate reference point.
- Sentiments: Sentiments about breastfeeding are impacted by social norms. Often leading to disapproving looks, comments, suggestions and perplexed thoughts about breastfeeding in a mother’s social environment.
- Social support: Black women continue to lead the way by filling in gaps within communities that might otherwise be void of breastfeeding support. More and more breastfeeding groups, both virtual and in-person are springing up throughout the country. Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Club parented by Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association (BMBFA) has run without interruption since 2008. In May 2021, BMBFA will launch The Parent Club Hub, an app designed to make hosting parent groups and breastfeeding clubs even more effective and efficient, further reducing barriers to culturally appropriate support.
Interviewer: Ms. Newkirk, tell me about your feeding choice for your children when they were infants.
Newkirk: My choice was, I didn’t have any choices. I didn’t know of anything other than (infant) formula. I never heard any information or any discussion of breastfeeding from my mother, or from my two older sisters. All I knew was formula off the shelf or go to WIC. And that’s what I did. That was a hard journey. It was rough.
Interviewer: What made it hard and rough?
Newkirk: The sleepless nights making milk. Trying to understand what you’re doing. I had to literally read the formula can, measure and sterilize the water. (I was a) new single mother. I remember those days being very rough and very hard in those early months and years of having to make sure the baby gets the milk that they need.
Interviewer: What years were your children born?
Newkirk: 1983 and 1988.
Interviewer: Were you living alone or were you in a multi-generational home?
Newkirk: When my son was born, I was with his dad. We were so young and there was no support because I wasn’t at home with my mom. And then with Malikah, it was even harder because she was a high-risk pregnancy. When I came home from the hospital, my mom came to the house with me because of the situation medically; however there were never any discussions about breastfeeding at the hospital.
Interviewer: Malikah, you had a similar experience, but it was with breastfeeding?
Malikah: Absolutely. As she mentioned nobody knew about breastfeeding in our family. I’m also a first-generation college graduate. So, I had access to different information and an expanded awareness. However, I didn’t know everything that was at play when I was pregnant. I didn’t know about health systems and historical trauma in our community. I just said okay, I’m going to breastfeed. And I thought it was going to be that easy. We had latch issues at the (Detroit) hospital and there was not, at that time, a full or robust nursing (lactation) system. I did not nurse him right after he was born. I was waiting for someone to come show me how to breastfeed. Nobody showed up. A nurse came eventually and scolded me and said, you can get in trouble if you haven’t fed your baby yet.
Interviewer: What did that mean to you? How did you interpret what the nurse said?
Malikah: First of all, I just had a baby, Nolan. My emotions, hormones, fears, everything is at the surface. It was definitely a hodgepodge of just bad emotions, negative emotions, draining, overwhelming. We tried (breastfeeding) in the hospital. We got home. That latch was not happening.
Interviewer: Who was trying to encourage you?
Malikah: Family members. My mom and of course my (now) husband. I got a (breast) pump. It was a mess. My nipples were cracking and bleeding.
Newkirk: And you were very upset.
Malikah: I could not (take it) anymore. And so we switched over to formula.
Interviewer: Ms. Newkirk, how did that make you feel?
Newkirk: I had a whole lot of mixed emotions. I was trying to be supportive, but I really was not on board. Because I didn’t understand how this was going to be done. I felt bad because I really had no means to help her get through it. It was emotionally hard to see her going through that.
Interviewer: Tell me about your next child, Aaron.
Malikah: I wanted to try (breastfeeding) again. I realized that it was more involved than what I had previously thought. I did a lot of research, took a breastfeeding class and I chose a different hospital that was (designated) “Baby-Friendly” with a full lactation office. I felt like I was in a better place. When it came time to latch Aaron, I had the same problems with him that I had with Nolan. I (had) thought it was going to be different.
Interviewer: Was there any research you did about social support?
Malikah: It (my research) was centered around me and the act of breastfeeding. I didn’t even realize the social or cultural piece until I got breastfeeding established and I still felt very lonely. What’s going on here? I need some other Black women to connect with. People in my family were pushing back from me breastfeeding in public. I went to this private Facebook group for Black women who are breastfeeding. Someone recommended Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association (BMBFA). I went to a breastfeeding club and y’all, haven’t been able to get rid of me yet.
Interviewer: How old was Aaron at that time?
Malikah: Three or four months.
Interviewer: Ms. Newkirk, what were your thoughts when she said I’m going to do this again?
Newkirk: I thought, here we go again and just kind of really laid back. I’m just trying to see how this is going to go because she made all these adjustments and told me wonderful things about how she’s going to be able to get all this support. I said, okay, to myself. But after reality really set in and she was actually breastfeeding, I was really amazed! I’ve never seen this before. It was a new world to me. But what got me really engaged was when she got on that Facebook page and I saw all these other Black women breastfeeding! She started sharing information with me about the mortality rate and how the baby can be healthier. All this stuff started clicking in my mind to all the babies in our family, not understanding all of the time we had everything we needed right in our bodies and didn’t even know. I was so happy that it worked out for her. We gave her the best support that we knew, but it was her determination, her drive to just keep going with it. Then, she found BMBFA to fill in a gap where we could not.
Interviewer: Malikah, tell me more about Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association.
Malikah: In 2016, I began attending Black Mothers Breastfeeding Club. I later became a BMBFA Mommy Ambassador, to give others what I (once) needed. To listen and show up for other black women is the highest calling. So deep, ancestral and beautiful. This is a part of my legacy and my life’s work to help save the lives of Black babies and women.
Interviewer: Ms. Newkirk. What is it about Malikah that amazes you?
Newkirk: She has this great spirit of love. She’s not afraid to stand up and stand out from the crowd. She pushes back. She doesn’t settle for the status quo. I love that about her.
Malikah went on to breastfeed Aaron for 4.5 years!
Call to Action to Create a Breastfeeding-Friendly System
Too often, it is the sheer will, self-advocacy and perseverance of a Black woman to individually overcome systemic barriers to breastfeeding success. There is too much at stake! Black babies are disproportionately born too small and too soon. Breastfeeding has been shown to help babies survive and thrive. No woman should be reliant upon her sole ability and willingness to fend for herself.
We call for breastfeeding-friendly systems where; 1) the community voice is honored, 2) policies, attitudes and practices align to achieve racial equity in breastfeeding support, 3) maternal-child-health institutions and agents of institutions demonstrate accountability to the community for their acts and behaviors.