Merlene Davis: Black women need to take another look at breast-feeding

It's Mother's Day, and I want to talk about an issue that must be corrected.

Black women in the United States are far less likely to breast-feed than women of any other race or culture in this country.

That amazes me.

It's not one of those feel-good romantic Mother's Day topics, but breast-feeding, or our lack thereof, is the true essence of a mother's job: nurturing our children.

As a group, black women have the least amount of wealth in America, so why not save money by breast-feeding? Breast-feeding can save a family more than $1,200 a year, research shows.

First lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin have pointed out the health benefits of breast-feeding for mother and child: Breast milk is optimal for a baby's growth; contains antibodies that protect children against ear infections, diabetes and some cancers; is easier to digest; and it's natural.

And breast milk may enhance brain development and guard against obesity.

Still, according to one study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 40 percent of black women have ever breast-fed, compared with 70 percent of white women and 72 percent of Hispanic women.

And while the least amount of time recommended for breast-feeding is six months, one study found that only 19 percent of black women breast-fed beyond that time period, compared with 29 percent of whites and 31 percent of Hispanics.

Other studies show similar results.

So, what's the problem?

Doraine Bailey, breast-feeding promotion coordinator at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, said there are many issues that get in the way of breast-feeding, work being one of them.

"For one, they don't see how it will fit into their return to work," Bailey said of black women. "They say, 'I don't get sick leave. I've got to go back to work.' "

The health care reform act contains a provision requiring businesses to make accommodations so breast-feeding mothers can pump their milk, Bailey said. That would help hourly workers who are receptionists or who are clerks.

"They've got to allow them some time," she said. "It could be their standard break time or potty time or lunch time."

And the women need a place that is not also home to a toilet, she said. "Employers want to comply," she said. "They just don't know how to do it."

And not many women are willing to be trailblazers or activists if their jobs are at stake.

Another reason for the lower breast-feeding rates among black women is some black babies are born pre-term, Bailey said, and unprepared to feed naturally. "That baby has a harder time initiating breast-feeding," Bailey said. "It's just not mature enough."

I breast-fed my youngest son, born prematurely, because I knew he needed that extra boost that only mother's milk could provide. He stayed in the hospital about six weeks and I had to pump all that time, freezing the milk and hauling some to the hospital, to keep my milk flowing.

But it was not until he rooted for my breast as I was holding him skin-to-skin in the hospital, giving him "kangaroo care," that I realize breast milk is what our children are naturally looking for. That is what God meant for breasts to do.

It wasn't much later that we were able to take him home.

Formula has been the norm for generations, now. And the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program offers free formula, Bailey said. And, yes, formula is good for babies, but breast milk is the best.

On this Mother's Day, expectant mothers, expectant grandmothers, aunts and sisters, should research the advances that are being made to make breast-feeding easier for new mothers.

An Easy Guide to Breastfeeding for African American Women can be found online at The information is pertinent to any woman, but the focus is on increasing the number of black women who breast-feed.

Bailey said she'd be glad to talk with anyone about it, too. Call her at (859) 288-2348. Or email her at

A healthy baby is the best Mother's Day gift ever.