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Breastfeeding education, support are essential for Black moms

Delilah Bennem, 1, laughs with her mom, Endia Williams, a trained lactation counselor, at the Latch & Stroll resource fair in South Chicago Aug. 26.

Delilah Bennem, 1, laughs with her mom, Endia Williams, a trained lactation counselor, at the Latch & Stroll resource fair in South Chicago Aug. 26.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

We have a reminder for medical professionals who work in maternal health: Black women need better care.  

As a recent article by Sun-Times reporter Mariah Rush illustrated, it’s tough — unnecessarily so, we think — for Black mothers to get guidance or encouragement to breastfeed. 

Consider what Jeanine Valrie Logan, founder of the South Side Birth Center that will open in 2025, told Rush about a training session she attended to become a lactation counselor and the words she heard that shocked her. 

“The whole time the trainers were saying, ‘You know, Black women don’t typically breastfeed, that is not a community that breastfeeds,’ ” Valrie Logan said. “I was in a room full of 500 health care providers, and here are trainers teaching health care professionals how to support people during lactation, and they’re telling us that Black women don’t breastfeed. So if someone presents to them in a clinic or in the hospital, they’re not even going to think that this Black woman might want this information.”



Health care professionals, however, have a duty to make all new moms, of every race and ethnicity, aware of the many health benefits to infants of breastfeeding — breast milk is more readily absorbed than formula, has more nutrients that are critical to brain and nerve development, and more.

Education, followed by breastfeeding support, is critical. After all, what new mom, with enough of both, wouldn’t decide to do what’s best for her newborn, if at all possible?

A history of racial disparity

The disparity in breastfeeding rates is well known in the health care field. Nationally, according to a 2019 analysis led by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 86% of white moms initiated breastfeeding, compared to just 69% of Black women. And while more than half of white moms exclusively breastfed their infant for the first three months, only 36% of Black moms did so.

Here in Illinois, nearly 92% of white women breastfed after a 2020 delivery compared to 77% of Black women, according to Illinois Department of Public Health data. 

Data from Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side is even more concerning. Among newborns discharged from Roseland in 2018, the breastfeeding rate was just 4%, though the surrounding community has a population that is 94% Black.

Lower breastfeeding rates by Black women are partly rooted in longstanding societal stigmas and trauma for Black women during slavery, when they were forced to breastfeed white babies, Zion Tankard, executive director of La Leche League International, told us. 

When breastfeeding came back as a norm in the 1970s in the U.S., after decades of taking a back seat to baby formula promoted on a massive scale by corporations, Black women were left out of the conversation, Tankard, who is Black, said.

“It absolutely does have to do with health care Black women receive and the support system,” she said of the disparity in breastfeeding that exists today.  A lack of family experience and knowledge can also contribute to the problem, as Rush reported.

Erasing the disparity is essential to closing the overall health care gap between pregnant Black and white women.

The gap extends beyond breastfeeding. Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related complication than white women, according to the CDC. In Chicago, Black women have by far the highest rate of pregnancy-associated deaths — more than five times higher than white women, and more than two times higher than Hispanic women — and are also more likely to severe pregnancy-associated morbidity, defined as health conditions that are likely to cause short-term or long-term health consequences for new mothers.

In rare instances, an illness could prevent a doctor from recommending breastfeeding. Otherwise, given its many health benefits, medical professionals should assume every new mom needs education and support to breastfeed — with special attention on Black mothers whose health care needs have been neglected for far too long.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.



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