The benefits of breastfeeding span from mother to baby, including reduced risk for asthma, obesity, and diabetes for infants, but also lower risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and breast and ovarian cancers in women who breastfeed.
While those same conditions are among the highest in black communities, a recent study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the rates of breastfeeding initiation, duration, and exclusivity in black infants has consistently remained 10 to 20 percentage points lower than that in white infants.
According to the report which compiled data for more than 11,000 households with children born in 2015, 85 percent of white women had initiated breastfeeding compared to only 69 percent of black women.
The report said the more than 16 percent disparity isn’t the result of a black mother’s choice, but the disproportionality in which black women experience obstacles to breastfeeding, including a lack of support from social circles and institutional policies.
“In the United States, the rate of implementation of evidence-based maternity care practices supportive of breastfeeding is lower among maternity care facilities in neighborhoods with larger black populations,” is just one of the examples referenced.
Even when survey respondents said they had initiated breastfeeding, black women were more likely to stop before the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommended six-months at a rate of more than 12 percent for exclusive breastfeeding.
Iris Lundy, director of health equity for Sentara Healthcare, said the hospital network recognizes the disparity and is invested in closing the gap by partnering with community resources and families while applying evidence-based practices.
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Lundy said outside of providing additional breastfeeding support education and training, “meeting patients where they are” is something Sentara’s staff does well.
“Understanding cultural values and things that are important to the patient and then involving education and support systems with that patient’s values in mind,” she said.
Sentara is also attempting to implement the World Health Organization’s “Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding” standards with its breastfeeding policy and training programs, Lundy said.
In line with the 10 steps, Sentara provides “post-discharge support” with its free breastfeeding support groups, lactation support services, and guide to resources in the community — all of which could increase breastfeeding initiation and duration among black mothers, according to the report.
Even so and according to the CDC, 54 percent of U.S. hospitals were able to implement a “majority” of the 10 steps as of 2013 but “of approximately 3,300 maternity hospitals in the US, only 289 are designated Baby-Friendly,” the site reads.
The issue is a matter of life and death for black infants in the U.S. who in 2016 were reported to have died from low birth weight, a leading cause of infant mortality, at more than twice the rate of white infants.
While advocating for breastfeeding, Lundy said lactation consultants at Sentara are also sure to be “informative, supportive, and respectful of that mother’s choice.”
“Our staff recognizes and understands when there are barriers and helps those moms and families overcome some of those barriers,” she said.