When Ypsilanti resident Najma Treadwell began breastfeeding her first daughter, she had little support and no role models.
"I saw bottle-feeding with formula growing up," says Treadwell, who went on to breastfeed all six of her children. "I didn't see many 21-year-olds breastfeeding, much less black moms breastfeeding."
That lack of support for breastfeeding starts in the hospital, according to Gayathri Akella, who is the service coordinator and breastfeeding coordinator for Washtenaw County's Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program.
"Many of these moms have these barriers at the health care level, because there are these statistics and stereotypes that black moms, young moms, and single moms don't breastfeed," Akella says.
A little over two years ago, staff at WIC decided to do something about that and started a black mothers' breastfeeding support group that now meets quarterly at the WIC office in Ypsi.
Barriers to breastfeeding
Akella emphasizes that WIC does not discriminate and offers many breastfeeding support services and events for mothers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, including an ice-cream social for all breastfeeding moms every August.
WIC is gearing up to offer a similar support group for Spanish-speaking moms, and has held special support meetings for Muslim mothers who are pregnant or breastfeeding during Ramadan, a month in the Islamic calendar that calls for adherents to fast from sunrise to sunset. However, the quarterly support group for black moms was created because that demographic faces unique risks and barriers.
WIC implemented the special intervention in part because Washtenaw County's infant mortality rate is four times higher for black infants than for white babies. Breastfeeding is a powerful and inexpensive way to increase survival odds for those babies.
"Breastfeeding is important because it's a way to give our babies the best possible chance of survival," Treadwell says. "It strengthens the immune system, makes them stronger, and makes us (as mothers) more cognizant of our own health, and that what we eat and goes into our body goes toward our babies. You have to eat right, exercise, and keep stress levels down and maintain some kind of self-care so that the milk supply comes in."
Treadwell knows this reality firsthand because she experienced difficulties with milk supply for her first baby due to stress and difficulty pumping milk once she returned to work.
"I breastfed for six months, but then I started back working and my supply went down because I wasn't educated about how to keep the supply up," she says. Her workplace allowed her to pump breast milk in the bathroom, but she felt discouraged.
"Do you go have lunch in the bathroom?" she says. "In a bathroom there's no clean spot where you want to set up, and (educational materials about pumping) say to keep everything sterile."
One of the biggest challenges for new black moms is a lack of role models.
Dera Williams, WIC breastfeeding peer educator and Ypsi resident, serves as the leader for the support group, and had her own challenges with breastfeeding her first daughter when she gave birth at age 19. She knew being a single mother would be challenging and she wanted to give her daughter every possible advantage. So when the doctor suggested breastfeeding, she did a little research.
"At that time, all I had was YouTube," she says. "None of my friends were breastfeeding."
Williams had a few problems with lactation but ended up successfully breastfeeding her daughter for eight months. She went on to teach a breastfeeding class at the Corner Health Center in Ypsi, and later was hired as a peer educator for the county's WIC program.
Black moms supporting each other
Both Williams and Treadwell agree that they would have had an easier time with breastfeeding if they'd had more social support and better role modeling.
"It starts in the hospital, with support not being fully there, (and black moms) feeling like they don't have someone who looks like them, who can relate to them, and give them support from the beginning," Treadwell says. "Usually it's a Caucasian woman who is the lactation consultant, but if you have someone who looks like you and can relate to you, you'll be more receptive (to the idea of breastfeeding)."
Akella says sometimes the problem goes beyond a lack of role models and support, with some young, single mothers being actively discouraged from breastfeeding.
"Not long ago, a staff member had a daughter delivered and she came into my office in tears asking for help," Akella says. The staff member's doctor had insisted she use formula because she was an 18-year-old single mom on Medicaid, but she really wanted to try breastfeeding.
Sometimes black moms are even discouraged by family members who tell them that breastfeeding hurts or will make their breasts saggy. They're also often told that a baby will tie them down, and they won't be able to socialize or work outside the home if they're breastfeeding.
Williams' role with the group is not to solve lactation problems but to be a "cheerleader" for moms who want to breastfeed. She says she tries to gently shut down and redirect negative conversations that arise in the support group.
"As a mom, I hear negative things that other moms have gone through, and things that aren't true," she says. "We don't want them to scare the other moms, so we teach them why they may have felt uncomfortable and that everyone's experiences are different."
Treadwell says she's glad times have changed, and she felt much more supported with the five children she had after her first one, both on a personal level and at the policy level. In 2014 a state law made it illegal for businesses to discriminate against breastfeeding mothers.
"Some of the moms don't understand we have the right to breastfeed," Treadwell says. "We give them cards that say that, in the state of Michigan, they're able to freely breastfeed wherever and do not have to be shunted into the bathroom."
Williams ran her first support group for black moms in late 2017, initially as a one-time event. She says there was such interest that they decided to up the frequency.
"From that first group, two moms had babies around the same time, and they're still friends to this day," she says. "They built a connection through the group, and that's one reason we made it quarterly. They were asking, 'When's the next one?'"
The group met three times in 2018 and will meet four times in 2019. Attendance has ranged from four to 15 participants. Akella says she thought it was better to start infrequently and add more sessions as demand grew. She says that as interest grows, the group might expand to meeting six times in 2020.
WIC staff try to create as few barriers to attendance as possible. The moms' husbands or partners are welcome to come to the support group, and their older children can also come along. A private lounge with comfortable chairs, baby slings, and other equipment is available for the support group, and a light dinner is served at each meeting. Most of the conversation during the hour-long sessions is driven by participants.
"Often someone will come in with a question, but if not, I'll ask how things are going," Williams says. If she can't help with a question or lactation issue, she can turn to Akella for help.
Treadwell and Williams both say they're not "anti-formula" or against the idea of supplementing breastfeeding with bottle feeding. They say it's important to support mothers in whatever their goals are.
"We're never wanting to push moms," Williams says. "If your goal is to breastfeed one day or six years, that's fine."
She notes that if a woman wants to stop breastfeeding because she is having pain or problems with the baby latching on, the group will try to help her work through those issues, but there's no pressure to continue if she decides to stop.
Akella notes that new moms are often socially isolated, so the social aspect of the support group is as important as the educational aspect.
"For many of them, it might be the only social event they have (that week)," Akella says. "It's a great way to connect with one another, and connection with other people is a great mental health piece."
Treadwell says she does a lot of one-on-one outreach to new moms, letting them know there's a place where they'll be supported.
"Even if you don't feel supported by your family, there's this group of moms, women who look like me that I can talk to," Treadwell says.
The next Black Mothers Breastfeeding Social takes place from 5-6 p.m. Oct. 30 at the Washtenaw County WIC office, 555 Towner St. in Ypsi. Interested moms can visit WIC's breastfeeding support Facebook page or call (734) 544-6800 for more information.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.