“Breastfeeding!” That was my response to a postpartum recovery nurse who asked how I was planning on feeding my son just a few hours after he was born. The answer was confident, even happy. It was a sure thing for me. Now that I think about it, she didn’t really offer another option: She just asked, “Will you breastfeed or…?”
Before I had my first child, I was unaware of the challenges of breastfeeding as a Black person during National Breastfeeding Awareness Month. There has always been a negative perception of motherhood, particularly new motherhood. You’re warned about sleepless nights, endless diaper changes, your baby’s teething stage, and more by friends and family. It’s often portrayed as easy, but breast-feeding is hard. In many cases, it is shown to occur automatically and effortlessly. As it turned out, breastfeeding wasn’t only difficult, but it was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. Furthermore, I was completely unprepared for what now seems to be obvious: what if breastfeeding doesn’t work out? How do I respond if I don’t see immediate results?
During the first feeding we had a few hours after he was born, things improved. This chaos could be traced back to the squirming newborn, painful latching (despite being told it was a perfect latch), and the delirious exhaustion of the new mother. Why wouldn’t it? Now, the idea that a new parent and a newborn can figure things out right away, without any ever having done it before, seems absurd to me. My baby wasn’t eating enough, and I wanted to make sure my baby had formula, but I felt shame when I pressed the call button at the hospital. Is breastfeeding your first choice?With tears in my eyes, a response like “was not the reply I needed at that moment. The feeling of judgement and invalidation was overwhelming. The first hurdles to breastfeeding success are not medical professionals, according to Erica Campbell, an internationally certified lactation consultant based in Houston. People express their concerns to healthcare professionals in hopes of finding solutions, but are often disregarded or given band-aids. People feel alone on their journeys due to the medical disconnect.”
However, in my grief, I did what I’ve always done-I started researching. If other Black people faced the same breastfeeding challenges as me, I needed to find out.
I was frustrated, failed to solve the problem, and shed many tears in the following weeks. As if all the other phases of motherhood weren’t exhausting enough, I was now experiencing guilt as well as a feeling of failure. I did what I always do in times of grief, however — I started researching. If other Black people faced the same breastfeeding challenges as me, I needed to find out. According to a quick Google search, Black women are the least likely to initiate breastfeeding. The average Black infant was breastfed 66% while white, Latinx and Asian infants were breastfed 82%. In addition, Black women breastfeed for the shortest period of time, with approximately 44 percent still breastfeeding at six months, compared to 62 percent of white women, and we have far less access to IBCLCs like Campbell.
The first step in creating a safe, welcoming space for all feeding journeys is acknowledging the significant impact systemic racism has on breastfeeding initiation, duration, and overall success. In becoming an IBCLC, Campbell wished she had had the support and assistance she wished she had, as a mother of two herself. A Black lactation consultant could make a positive difference for a lot of other birthing people like me who struggle. Campbell acknowledged the need for Black lactation consultants in the industry. The decision to become a lactation consultant was not motivated by racial bias, she says. She did it to help others as she would want to be helped. Now I realize how important my presence is during feeding time.”
Campbell notes that latching is the most common breastfeeding concern, but that the solution is not cookie-cutter. Investigation is always the key to finding a solution. “It is important to recognize that a solution for one person may not be the solution for another. Therefore, figuring out why these issues are occurring is crucial. She also reminds her clients about the digital resources available to birthing people who may not have easy access to lactation consultants or IBCLCs. Birthing people can find a sense of community on Facebook and Instagram, as well as resources, tips, and tricks, as well as kind, nonjudgemental, understanding ears, “You can make the internet your best friend,” she says.
There is something beautiful, sacred, and intimate about breastfeeding. The learning curve for this software is, however, mind-boggling. An entire industry of professionals dedicated to assisting in this process exists. Classes, books, cookies, and supplements boost supply. It is often difficult to feel natural when you are breastfeeding. I have adopted the mantra, “fed is best.” I have used those three words over and over, and it has helped me through the toughest times. I have the healthiest and happiest baby you will ever meet because my child is well-fed, healthy, and happy. The burden of guilt and failure is entirely mine to bear. I’m learning to take his lead despite the fact that none of it originates from him. Eventually, we will increase his breastfeeds when he’s ready. We don’t have to agree, and that’s okay, too.
In those early days of frustration, I reached out to my Instagram followers, desperate to know I wasn’t the only one. I received a lot of responses. Nearly all the women I contacted struggled or were struggling at the moment. Every day there were stories of tears, frustration, and feelings of failure. My exact story. The most impactful message came from a friend who reminded me that “quitting and changing a plan are not the same thing.” These words were a gift to me, and I hope they are for anyone struggling with birthing. Compared to your expectations, you’re doing quite well.
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