Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Black women have no desire to breastfeed?

The American Academy of Pediatrics held their annual conference recently and information about the conference is now beginning to slowly emerge in the blogosphere. One of the things I've heard is that Nestle Nutrition, the largest sponsor of the conference, has now partnered with the AAP on a Healthy Active Living Initiative which you can read more about on PhD in Parenting.

Apparently some new information on black breastfeeding was also presented, based on a recent study conducted at a hospital in Camden, NJ. I initially wasn't going to write about the study because only the abstract is available online and I didn't think it was a great study or really told us anything useful. But since everyone is posting links to it on Facebook now I figured I should probably tackle it.

So this study looked at the barriers to breastfeeding as reported by exclusively formula feeding mothers. A whopping 62 black women were queried with the open-ended question, "Is there any particular reason why you chose not to breastfeed?" I can't tell from the abstract whether or not these women ever attempted or initiated breastfeeding, but my guess from the conclusion drawn from the study that the answer is "no." See, 55% of the respondents said they chose not to breastfeed because they simply had no desire to do so.

Now, I may never understand why women choose not to breastfeed. But is it really a revelation that a large percentage of women who never even tried to breastfeed just didn't want to? And why are the headlines screaming "Black women have no desire to breastfeed"? Because there are plenty of women of every race who have no desire to breastfeed. In fact, about 25% of women of other races never initiate breastfeeding. So while it would appear that a much greater percentage of black women don't want to breastfeed, there are often a lot of other factors at play, which even this study based on a handful of women living in one of the most blighted urban cities in America illustrates.

The answers respondents gave were coded into two categories: easily modifiable barriers and not easily modifiable barriers. The easy barriers were things like, fear of pain, worry about supply and misinformation. Twenty-three percent of the black women offered these easily modifiable barriers. But 89% gave reasons that were NOT easily modifiable, including having to return to work or school. So of the women who had a not easily modifiable reason to not breastfeed, half simply didn't want to, but half had a barrier outside of their own personal belief system preventing them from breastfeeding. Yet the headlines are just screaming, "Black women don't want to breastfeed!" with all of the value judgments about black women that a statement like that implies.

There are a lot of things that make this a complicated issue, but I'm not ready to say, based on this study, that the reason black breastfeeding rates are low is simply that black women don't want to do it. I'm also guessing that if you took any group of women, regardless of race and class, who never breastfed and asked them why not, that their answers would look the same. We have a lot of work to do, but I'm not sure that oversimplifying complex issues that involve race, class and culture, is the best way to go about it.

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