Community Group Gives Peer Support to Breastfeeding Black Women
In early December, a $4.5 million grant from the Ohio Department of Medicaid was awarded to CelebrateOne, local partners, and emerging community organizations that address the disparities in birth outcomes and infant mortality rates as their missions.
One of the organizations that received a portion of the grant is Black Lactation Circle of Central Ohio (BLaC), a 665-person online and offline community serving Black pregnant and nursing mothers, birth workers and health professionals in Columbus.
According to a 2015 report by the Center for Disease Control, Black women have the lowest rate of breastfeeding initiation compared to other racial and ethnic groups. One strategy the CDC recently recommended to increase the breastfeeding rate is to improve support among family and peer groups.
However, BLaC’s founders didn’t need a report to tell them peer support systems were a need.
The organization originated out of a much larger, internationally-geared Facebook group for breastfeeding Black women. Members from that group found each other through a mutual friend in Khadija Garrison Adams, co-founder of BLaC.
Those five women created a group chat and eventually set out to meet in person, for face-to-face conversations and to connect each other to resources. They saw a need not being addressed in other spaces in Columbus and set out to become a support system for nursing mothers.
“The [sets] of circumstances with African American women are unique,” said Kimberly Quachey, co-founder of the group. “We wanted to provide a safe space for people to maybe ask questions and not feel like it was a dumb question, and then not to have to explain why you’re asking those questions.”
According to Yolanda Owens, another co-founder, the majority of the moms in this group were not breastfed themselves — a small indication of how breastfeeding has been looked at historically in Black communities for decades. Looking back at that history brings to light that Black women were used as wet nurses during slavery, breastfeeding someone else’s child, but not being able to feed their own.
There is also a generational gap in the amount of evidence-based information known to Black communities — including the benefits of breastfeeding, the benefits of breastfeeding beyond one year, etc. — and many more underlying factors as well.
“Between that and the fact that Black women fall into a space of poverty and having lower-wage jobs, not having the ability to take off the time to be able to breastfeed, formula being pushed in our communities,” said Owens. “So there’s all of these layers of pieces as to why it’s normalized, unfortunately, in our community that it was not the normal thing to have to breastfeed.”
Because of this spread of misinformation, the group does a few things differently from other online groups. First, they are careful about the type of conversations they allow to transpire. They stay away from controversial conversations such as vaccines and milk boosters, (One mom in the group was able to share her horror story of using a milk booster despite warnings from the group. Her experience became a testament to the dangers for the group to learn from.) and milk “stashes,” i.e. producing and bottling large amounts of breast milk and showing it off, which can set unrealistic and unnecessary expectations for moms.
They say managing those conversations closely has been one of the reasons why the group is successful.
“[We] have created a culture where we only allow evidence-based information. There’s just certain topics we don’t allow,” said Quachey.
“We’ve [created] this space because there’s a lot more information out there,” said Owens. “When you know better, you do better.”
Within the group are also medical professionals and birth workers of color — doulas, lactation consultants, nurse midwives — who have been able to serve as subject matter experts in their monthly meetings. The group has evolved from casual meetups for moms to discuss what has felt like defeats and successes in motherhood and issues with latching or pain when breastfeeding, to now holding curated conversations on everything from their rights as breastfeeding mothers in the workplace to postpartum sex.
Ironically, some of the medical professionals attend meetings to learn information they were not taught in medical school.
“We have two MDs that are in the group now,” said Owens. “And it’s just funny because they were a testament to the fact that they’re like, ‘We don’t learn this in medical school. And so I needed to be part of this group so that I can know for myself to be able to breastfeed my own child. And I have a medical degree.'”
Now four years in, local organizations have taken notice of the work BLaC is doing. In addition to the grant received with CelebrateOne, the group gets referrals from Franklin County Women Infants and Children (WIC) programs and unofficially from hospital systems like Grant and The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Centers.
Black Lactation also partners frequently with Restoring Our Own Through Transformation (ROOTT) and has been able to count on the resources of many local organizations over the years.
Improving the disparity in infant mortality rates requires more than just a few informational campaigns or half-hearted referrals. It also requires a solid foundation for mothers, their babies, and the support of the relationship between the two.
Funding organizations like BLaC is a great step in that direction.
“We do talk a lot about how breastfeeding reduces, drastically reduces, infant mortality. Especially when black babies are dying at two and a half, almost three times the rate of white babies here in Columbus,” said Owens. “I’m glad that people are [paying] more attention to this space.”
Find Black Lactation Circle on their Facebook page.