The scene plays out like it’s one from the pages of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” In some communities across America, infants are healthy. There are low rates of upper respiratory infections and ear infections and low incidences of asthma. But in far too many other communities—sadly, mostly Black and Brown ones—there is a completely opposite story unfolding.
That story is replete with high infant mortality statistics, high levels of childhood obesity and too many chronically ill babies. The difference in most of these cases is a simple matter of the infants’ first food—breast milk—and the number of infants that are actually being breastfed.
The immunological properties of breast milk have been proven to reduce the risk of upper respiratory infections, ear infections, asthma and Type 2 diabetes and to reduce the likelihood of childhood obesity. Breastfeeding benefits mothers too; it helps them slim down faster after birth, and studies prove that mothers who breastfeed have a reduced risk of ovarian and breast cancer. That’s particularly important to African-American women who often get breast cancer at a younger age and in a more aggressive form.
Yet, in far too many vulnerable communities, mothers don’t have the support to breastfeed successfully. A breastfeeding support group is hard to find. Breastfeeding in public is never seen. Doctors don’t educate Black women on breastfeeding or simply assume they will not. Child care facilities have not been properly trained in handling human milk. Public places don’t have nursing mother rooms, and culturally competent breastfeeding professionals are rare or nonexistent.
Meanwhile, in these same communities, the marketing of infant formula is rampant—despite the fact that formula-fed babies have higher risks of getting diarrhea, high blood pressure and more viral and bacterial respiratory infections.
This is the sobering reality for far too many mothers who are living in what I call “first food deserts.” These are communities with minimal to non-existent breastfeeding resources and support mechanisms for the first food—breast milk. Just as the food movement has come to understand that access to fresh, healthy and affordable fruit and vegetables is vital for health, women need access to the resources necessary for succesful breastfeeding. Without those resources, the breastfeeding experience is severely compromised or is never undertaken at all. When that happens, it is our babies who pay the price.
Where you live should not impact your infant’s health. In fact, every community should be a place where every mother has everything she needs to successfully feed her baby nature’s most complete first food, if she chooses to do so. She should be able to give her baby the very best start in life and the best chance for a healthy childhood with the protective health benefits of human milk. To do so, it is time to extend the responsibility for breastfeeding success beyond a mother’s shoulders and into the community. It is time for the community to take a stand for its youngest and most vulnerable residents.
Recent efforts have been rightfully aimed at hospitals to rid them of insidious infant formula marketing tactics. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “Latch On” initiative limits access to infant formula. This is critical, especially because infant formula companies have made million-dollar backdoor deals with hospitals to gain access to mothers for their own marketing purposes. But a hospital stay is only a two-to-three day experience for most women in this country, who will spend the majority of their breastfeeding journey in their communities. If a woman leaves the hospital breastfeeding and enters a community that is a “first food desert,” she is still set up for failure.
I recently had the opportunity to launch a project called the First Food Friendly Community Initiative (www.befirstfoodfriendly.org), a movement to transform desert-like communities into first food-friendly oases. The initiative was started after I led a nine-month project, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, exploring desert-like communities in the Southeast. To better understand the role community support plays in breastfeeding success, we went into key cities in three Southeastern states with some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the country: Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Our team of surveyors conducted a comprehensive community assessment gauging the actual community influences that a woman meets every day; we looked at everything from access to a support group to physician referrals to the levels of infant formula advertising in the community to the prevalence of nursing mothers rooms in public places.
Our sobering findings opened my eyes to the inequities of support and the absurdity of our expectations of mothers in these areas. There has been a systemic failure in many neighborhoods, and it’s time to build micro-level support in the community. It is no shock that these areas also have some of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. One thing is clear: Our communities are the next frontier in ensuring healthier babies and healthier moms.
Programs like the Breastfeeding Empowerment Zone (BFEZ) project, being launched in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville, Brooklyn, hold promise. The BFEZ will provide comprehensive and multi-level initiatives to support breastfeeding, including promoting male involvement, community education, direct home visits and support groups. This is what we need for healthier babies.
The CDC has consistently maintained that increased breastfeeding among African-American mothers would reduce our high infant mortality rate by as much as 50 percent; currently, Black babies die before their first birthday, on average, at twice the rate of white babies. In New York City, the infant mortality rate for Black babies is three times higher than that of white babies. Those are lost resources and lost potential and sorely impact families in our communities.
We can do better. And for Black babies, the imperative to increase breastfeeding is a lifesaving, all-hands-on-deck-no-matter-where-you-live matter.
Bio: Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, author, a leading commentator on African–American motherhood and a nationally recognized breastfeeding advocate. A former senior editor at Essence and a writer at Fortune, Allers is the author of “The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy” and two other Mocha Manual books, published by HarperCollins. She is also the founder of MochaManual.com, an award-winning pregnancy and parenting website, and Black Breastfeeding 360, a multimedia content library. Her next book, an in-depth analysis of the modern breastfeeding landscape, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2014. A graduate of NYU and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Allers is a divorced mother of two who lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @iamKSealsAllers
Source for NYC infant mortality: