Breastfeeding is Key to Eliminate Health Disparities

Jennifer Arice White, MSPH- @JWhite421

On June 4, 2014, I had the honor of speaking at the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine Sixth Annual Summit. As I addressed breastfeeding and maternal and child health advocates, I emphasized the importance of creating supportive environments for mothers to breastfeed. African-American mothers have made significant improvements in breastfeeding initiation and duration. In 2000, the CDC reports that breastfeeding initiation was 47.4% in comparison to 71.8% among whites. By 2008, the CDC reports that the percentage of Black infants who ever breastfed had increased to 58.9% and 75.2% among white infants. Improvements are signs of progress, but the disparity persists.

Breastfeeding is a key strategy in the elimination of disparities such as infant mortality, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and childhood obesity. Breastfeeding lays a healthy foundation for infants and can help prevent childhood leukemia, respiratory illnesses, ear infections, and reduce hospital stays. Not only is breastfeeding good for the baby’s health, but provides benefits for mothers. Breastfeeding fuels an emotional bond that plays a significant role in the child’s long term development. Mothers who breastfeed for longer periods lower their risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Studies have also shown that breastfeeding can reduce a women’s risk of developing diabetes.

In addition to the health benefits of breastfeeding, breastfeeding has numerous economic benefits. The Office of Women Health reports that feeding a baby formula can cost more than $1500 per year, which is about $30 per week. In addition to the cost of formula, an indirect cost is lost wages from attending to an ill child. Because breastfed infants are less likely to catch common infectious illness in comparison to formula-fed infants, mothers who choose to breastfeed may miss fewer days of work.

If there are emotional, health, and economic benefits to breastfeeding, why is it so difficult for women, particularly African-American women to breastfeed? Despite breastfeeding being natural, there are significant challenges. Many barriers to breastfeeding include the lack of knowledge, lack of culturally competent information during pregnancy and post delivery, cultural norms, health care inequities, and employment constraints. These barriers cut across racial and ethnic lines, but are intensified for women of color, particularly Black women.

Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act focuses on preventive care and breastfeeding. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) amended Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires employers to provide breastfeeding mothers with the necessary time and space to pump and store their breast milk. Additionally, the ACA requires health plans to provide breastfeeding support, counseling, and equipment for the duration of breastfeeding.

Although these measures lower barriers for many, targeted strategies are needed to create a supportive culture of breastfeeding for African-American women. This means that families, communities, and a diverse range of partners are needed to foster this environment. For example, Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE) empowers and supports African-American and their families to promote breastfeeding. Through mentoring, support groups, outreach, and education their work is crucial to this movement.

At the NAACP, we are committed to eliminating the racial and ethnic disparities in our health care system that plague people of color. More importantly, the NAACP is committed to ensuring that equity and social justice is a priority for the public health community. Breastfeeding is not a silver bullet, but it is a key strategy in eliminating health disparities. The benefits of breastfeeding are invaluable. Even the most scientifically advanced formula cannot beat the customized immunological benefits of breast milk; breastfeeding is best. As we observe National Breastfeeding Month, we encourage breastfeeding women to keep pumping and give your baby a healthy start.

For additional information on breastfeeding, please visit the Office of Women’s Health where you may find resources such as Helpline and It’s Only Natural. We also encourage you to join the National Breastfeeding Month conversation on social media using the following hashtags: #Breastfeeding and #ItsOnlyNatural.