“The breast is best.” This is language many expectant mothers are familiar with. And yet there is still significant stigma surrounding breastfeeding, especially among black women. One Facebook group is trying to change that by letting black mothers know that breastfeeding is an accessible and incredible experience.
Founded by Stacy Yeager, Ph.D., the Breastfeeding Support Group for Black Moms provides support, resources and empathy to its over 45,000 members. As Yeager explained to The Glow Up:
I started the Breastfeeding Support Group for Black Moms when I was trying to find online black-woman-centered breastfeeding support while nursing my second child. ... I created the group to bring black mothers together to support each other while breastfeeding.
It’s now been about five years, and we are growing daily! The black women in this community come together to embrace the pride of our culture of black women supporting other black women. This allows for us to “rescue” ourselves from the low breastfeeding rates, to promote education and even become licensed in lactation consulting. I am passionate about ensuring that the legacy of breastfeeding our children is a positive one. Breastfeeding has been around since women began having babies, and [for black women] the tradition has since been lost, but now it’s back and here to stay.
To find out more about this unique group of mothers and how they empower one another, we joined a roundtable discussion with the group’s administrators—Courtney Polk, Shannon Shelton Miller, Deidra Toran, Faye Harris, Sharna Garrett, Nzinga Jones and Milliche Moss—to talk about what this group has done for each of them, and what they’re hoping to provide for other moms.
The Glow Up: Tell us how your group specifically supports black breastfeeding mothers.
Courtney Polk: I found the group just searching on Facebook, and I was so excited to see this big group of black women that breastfeed because for so long I, because I breastfed, heard, “Oh, that’s white people stuff.” ... We all laugh, we cry, we vent and overall, we support moms and whatever their breastfeeding experience is for them.
I’m also an international board-certified lactation consultant, so in addition to personal experience—now nursing two kids—there’s professional experience. ...
TGU: Regarding “that’s white people stuff”: Do you feel black women are resistant to the idea of breastfeeding?
CP: I think historically, when we were brought to this country and forced to be wet nurses for other races’ babies, our own children were pushed away from us. ... So then I think it just became something that [black women] just don’t want to do.
Nzinga Jones: We also have a lack of structure in our workplace and our cultural environments that support breastfeeding. For example, we have all of these women who want to breastfeed, but then they’re forced to return to work [with]in weeks of giving birth, and they don’t have places to pump breast milk.
TGU: That’s a really good point. Is there a problem-solving component to these dilemmas?
Shannon Shelton Miller: One thing I think that we also supply is just information about working and nursing, because a lot of the admins actually work outside of the home, so we have experience with that. ... When [mothers] are saying, “I’m worried about going back to work and I don’t have a place to pump,” we can say that under the [Affordable Care Act], just look up “nursing time for working mothers.” There is a whole document from the Department of Labor that explains what you are entitled to. ...
I work at a university, and there are a lot of [members] going to school. and they’re like, “What do I do?” I say, “Go find out where the lactation room is at your school,” And they’ll say, “I had no idea they had lactation rooms at my school.” ... Just right then, when they’re thinking, “I’m not going to be able to breastfeed anymore because I have to go back to work,” or school, or whatever, we can tell them, “Yes, you can, and here is exactly what you have to do and how you can do it.”
Nzinga Jones: A lot of times, we’re also able to provide in-person resources. ... There have been times where people have seen a situation that was really dire or emotional, and we’ve actually sent physical items to a mother. Like, sometimes we will send breast pumps or we’ll send different things that can help, like diapers or whatever, through Amazon or a gift list. We have facilitated [that] kind of physical, in-person assistance throughout the years.
TGU: Is it mostly professional women that you have in the group, or are you also including mothers who are lower-income? Are you able to figure out how to integrate breastfeeding for all?
CP: Yes, definitely. We have a range of everybody, those that are on public assistance and are still struggling to make ends meet to lawyers in the group, doctors in the group. There is a place for everyone to feel welcome and to contribute.
Sharna Garrett: We also have a range of ages in the group that is interesting and provides even more of a wealth of experiences. Sometimes you’ll have a 19-year-old mother saying, “Everyone thinks I should be using formula, and ... it’s easier and I’m too young.” And then those of us who are in our late 30s can say, “No, ma’am, you can do this, and here’s how, and here’s what you say.” It can be like a sisterhood, a little bit of that older-mom-mentoring type of support that goes on daily.
NJ: I remember we had a high schooler who was struggling because she literally had to decide whether she wanted to go back to school and allow her family to babysit, or stay at home, breastfeed, and finish her school online or whatever. So we helped her navigate through that. ... We’ve also had those come to the group and say, “Hey, my doctor told me I have advanced maternal age and I won’t be able to breastfeed,” which is completely false information.
So, on both ends of the spectrum, we have a wide age range, a wide socioeconomical range. ... One of our admins is a WIC counselor, and the thing about WIC counseling is that you have to have gone through WIC support, so we have that experience on our admin team as well.
CP: We even have a couple grandmas in the group who want to learn to help their daughters breastfeed and be successful.
TGU: Will you still stick with the group after you’ve stopped breastfeeding?
CP: I don’t plan on stopping. I’ve made a career out of bellies and babies, so breastfeeding is my passion. If I never make another penny, or in a perfect world, I would help every and any mom breastfeed all their babies for as long as possible.
SSM: I’m 40, so I am one of the advanced-maternal-age mothers. ... I think I’m probably done with kids, [but] I’ll still stick around as well because I think we found that what started as an interest in breastfeeding our own children has become a passion in terms of educating about breastfeeding and supporting other people.
TGU: Is there a specific age where kids should stop breastfeeding, or do you find that most kids just taper off?
CP: Most kids just taper off if the parent doesn’t initiate. So typically, the natural weaning age is anywhere between 4 and 7. We know in this country that is not the norm. ... I personally don’t feel that there is a “too old”; whenever Mom and baby are no longer comfortable, then it is time to stop.
TGU: What changes would you like to see in terms of just the general response to breastfeeding mothers, and support you would like to see put in place for them?
SSM: I think a lot of people have been surprised to find out that—I’m treading carefully here—that not all members of these accepted medical establishments are automatically going to support breastfeeding. They support it in theory, but they may say that the baby isn’t gaining weight fast enough or they base it off of charts from a formula-fed baby. Also, I don’t believe they all get breastfeeding education in school.
CP: I got zero breastfeeding education in nursing school. None at all.
NJ: A lot of what comes to us in our culture is breastfeeding problems, not breastfeeding solutions. It’s like a Band-Aid on a bullet wound: It doesn’t address the problem; it only covers it up a little bit.
Milliche Moss: I wanted to jump in here and say it’s not just the medical community that is giving false information. ... We’re given all this paperwork on things that can happen to your baby, but not given solutions on how to prevent or treat these things.
CP: One thing I would like to see more of is pediatricians and other health care professionals actually referring moms to lactation consultants. ... There are resources out there that can help moms, so if I had a magic wand, that would be one thing I would change.
TGU: Finally, let’s talk about the main benefits of breastfeeding and why you are so passionate about helping other mothers have this experience.
Deidra Toran: Just a simple health reason and benefit for breastfeeding is that when your baby’s saliva comes into contact with your breast, it signals to the body exactly what it needs to make in order for your baby to thrive. So if the mother happens to be sick, it produces antibodies. ... It also changes in fat content over time, so as your baby grows, the milk changes as well. ... Breast milk is the absolute best because it knows exactly what the baby needs and it can create that. A lot of times, moms don’t know something as simple as that.
NJ: [Other] benefits of breastfeeding that we really like to emphasize in the group [are] not only the health benefits for the mom and the baby, but also the [cumulative] effect in terms of the maternal mortality rate and the fetal mortality rate in the black community. The disease incidences in the black community—diabetes, cancer, those things that affect us disproportionately—are also affected by our choices to breastfeed or formula-feed.
A lot of times what we hear is that it’s easier to formula-feed, but one of the benefits of breastfeeding is that it is the easiest thing. You don’t have to go out and buy anything, you don’t have to assemble bottles or clean this or sterilize that; you literally just lift up your shirt, and there it is. ...
Breastfeeding is one of the most magical, most awesome experiences that a mother can have with her child. It’s something that builds families and communities one moment, one minute at a time. We want to do that as much as possible.