Merlene Davis: When it comes to breast feeding, women should do what's right for them and their children

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 27, 2014 

Madalyn Milner, 3, with her parents Qiana Flewellen and Mitchell Milner. Flewellen breastfed her daughter for 21/2 years.

When my niece was pregnant three years ago, she insisted on being cared for by a nurse midwife, and she was just as adamant about breast-feeding her son when he was born.

I loved it, but it did surprise me a bit.

My niece had researched giving birth and nurturing her child, and found that midwifery and breast feeding were the best options for her.

Most of the mothers of my generation were directed along a much different route. I didn't know any woman who gave birth without a doctor present and definitely didn't know any mother who breast-fed.

When my son was born prematurely, however, I knew I had to give him the best start I could, and that had to be through human milk.

But now I'm hearing black mothers are still lagging behind white mothers at the rate at which they breast-feed.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, in 2010, 62 percent of black babies began breast-feeding at birth, compared to 79 percent of white babies. Hispanic and Asian mothers had a rate of 81 and 83 percent, respectively.

After six months, 36 percent of the black infants were still breast-feeding, while 52 percent of white children were still breast-fed. Hispanics and Asians were one to 10 percentage points higher than whites.

Those numbers reflect a disparity that has existed for 40 years. For various reasons, black women are not breast-feeding their children as routinely as other women.

August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and this week is the second annual observance of Black Breastfeeding Week. Doraine Bailey, with Breastfeeding Support Services at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, said she would like to know why there is such a gap.

"We know in general moms choose to breast-feed by personal values and family values," she said. "If my sister tries and it is painful, I'm not sure I will do it."

Bailey calls that an anchoring event or reference point that can make or break a new mother's decision to nurse. Many anchoring events originate with mothers or grandmothers who might not support breast feeding.

"Between 60 and 70 percent of black moms leave (the University of Kentucky Hospital) breast-feeding," Bailey said. "That's compared to 85 to 90 percent of white, Hispanic or Asian moms. Where is the tipping point? Is there a key thing?"

Qiana Flewellen nursed her 3-year-old daughter Madalyn Milner for 21/2 years.

"The good thing about it was being able to provide for her," said Flewellen, a civil engineering student at UK. "It was sustaining to see her growing and knowing the only thing she was getting was nutrition from me."

Flewellen researched the benefits of breast feeding before Madalyn was born and then presented the financial savings to her partner, Mitchell Milner, who was in agreement with her decision.

Flewellen's mother breast-fed her children as well, so that anchoring event was more positive for her.

But some black mothers and poor mothers might not have support at school, their workplace or from family members. Being able to pump the breasts to gather enough milk to store while the mother is absent can be a difficult maneuver.

A lot of things are difficult to maneuver but well worth it in the end. Breast feeding is one of those things.

Historically, babies were carried by their mothers and fed human milk on demand. Eventually, with the increased availability of formula and women working outside the home, breast feeding began to decline. The youth movement of the 1960s began to bring it back because of the benefit to children.

Not all women can nurse. Not all women want to. But Bailey said it is time all women had the right to choose what they want to do. Making breast feeding difficult or failing to support that natural act takes away not only a choice but also the best preventive medicine nature provides our children.

Some nursing mothers are still treated negatively when they feed their children in public. It seems to be more acceptable to expose breasts in a sexy ball gown than while feeding a child.

We have to change that narrative. We need to help women do what is best for their children and themselves.

Along that line, Bailey said a "Rock and Relax" tent will be set up from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the KidsFest area of the Roots and Heritage Festival on Sept. 6, giving mothers a welcoming place to nurse. That area is near Short Street and Elm Tree Lane.

Happy BreastFeeding Awareness Month and Black BreastFeeding Week.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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