Imbued With Nutritional Riches: A Black Mother’s Breastfeeding Journey

Denys Symonette Mitchell, Prince Georges County, Maryland

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at during National Breastfeeding Month in August 2020.

Denys and her son in the hospital

We know the statistics. We’re familiar with the trends. The organizational one-pagers, mission statements and excerpts already exist. Still, even with a wealth of information within reach, most discussions about breastfeeding rates among Black women tend to overlook evidence-based research, lack cultural competence and ignore our lived experiences altogether.

On the other side of the rainbow, there’s Black Breastfeeding Week, which culminates the ending of National Breastfeeding Month each year, where our firsthand narratives are highlighted and celebrated. Black women as nurturers who have nourished a nation forward, one latch at a time. This is my story…

Hand in hand, my husband and I journeyed happily toward parenthood. We marveled as the two of us evolved into Mom and Dad. My husband had the grand idea that we should wait until the delivery to find out the sex of our baby and I was all in after confirming that he wasn’t just trying to save money by skipping out on a gender reveal party. For Baby Mitchell, as we affectionately called our growing child, there were four things that I looked forward to most:

  1. That s/he be a healthy, happy baby
  2. That I have the honor of being the one who teaches my baby to read
  3. That s/he gets to visit Walt Disney World during the early years (I was born and raised in Orlando, Florida — This is a necessary rite of passage)
  4. That s/he breastfeeds for at least the first year!

Oh, I read just about every published article, Pinterest post, comment board and paperback book in preparation for this great journey. My husband and I signed up for classes, watched endless video tutorials and sifted through the web to find a lactation consultant who could provide postpartum support and assistance, if needed. I even chose a Baby-Friendly hospital to birth my child.

Well, the time had come and after 47 hours of labor, my darling son was delivered at 8:02 a.m. on Christmas Day. He latched shortly thereafter and I was delighted as my body produced a gratuitous supply of colostrum. My little baby seemed to love it and appeared to be receiving just the right amount despite his somewhat-shallow latch at the time. No worries, I thought! This base was covered because upon admission to the hospital, I requested a one-on-one with the lactation consultant though she hadn’t yet met with me. Also, I had already roped in the nurses who were said to be the best at early initiation of breastfeeding, too… Though, none of them ever got around to visiting with me either.

What I received was an electric breast pump and an instruction manual no more than six hours postpartum along with endless questions asking “Enfamil or Similac” with the implied notion that my newborn would need one of the two. This was followed by explicit statements indicating exactly what I perceived to be true: Reportedly, my son required infant formula.

Denys’ son

I was perfectly capable and wanting to breastfeed but vulnerable and exhausted having just given birth and actively dissuaded by the medical team. Why was this happening? My baby appeared to be well fed, plus I had already stated my desire and unwavering commitment to nursing. Still, I was being deterred and robbed of the early, critical support that was needed. Now if this were a lone narrative, I could live with that and walk away knowing it was nothing more than an unfortunate encounter with medical professionals who would’ve rather been home on Christmas Morning than at work dealing with a persnickety first-time mom. Shared narratives from a wide range of close mommy friends, though, proved this to be more than just an anomaly or “a few bad apples” scenario. This was a pattern!

As pointed out in a landmark study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “African-American infants were more than nine times more likely than white babies to be given formula in the hospital.” In conclusion, the authors state an observation that my mommy friends and I know all too well from both lived and learned experience: “Why are Black mothers disproportionately being given infant formula? This cannot be answered without another uncomfortable conversation about whose babies are valued, which mothers can be trusted to feed their babies without measured and monitored amounts, and who is worthy of the time needed to help someone start breastfeeding successfully.”

Even more, just two years ago, the National Institutes of Health published content concluding that “Experiences of institutionalized racism influence breastfeeding initiation and duration… Structural level interventions are critical to close the gap of racial inequity in breastfeeding rates in the U.S.”

Nevertheless, most discussions about low breastfeeding rates among Black women tend to overlook this evidence-based research and lack cultural competence altogether. Even more insidiously, there’s little to no conversation about the terrorizing, racist past relating to Black breastfeeding in America. An entry point of empathy related to our great-grandmothers’ lived experiences of being made to wet nurse white babies at the expense of their own children is either too painful a discourse or wholly unknown.

Moreover, at the countless tables I’ve sat with thought-leaders and the like, I’ve yet to hear any discussion about the predatory marketing practices of formula companies that directly targeted and influenced our grandmothers. However, at my own 80-plus-year-old grandmother’s dinner table in rural Georgia, I’ve listened firsthand as she recalls in vivid, harrowing detail how she herself was deceived alongside her mommy friends of the 1940s and ‘50s. She was told her new baby would need formula if she wished to offer him the best start in life as it was the only option that could give him all that he needed because her breast milk wasn’t strong enough and her best bet would be allowing her milk to dry up, which was often done by applying cabbage leaves to the breasts. I still cringe at the thought of my own grandmother — the beloved matriarch of my family who has nourished generations of minds, bodies and spirits — being told that she wasn’t enough for the children that she bore. Absurdly enough, it’s the same message of inadequacy that was conveyed to me decades later and about a dozen states over. The levels of deception are painstaking and hard to process even today.

Then there’s the generation of our own workin’ mamas who may have quickly returned to the labor force because, to date, our country does not have a federal paid leave policy. As studies have shown, access to paid leave helps provide women with the time they need to establish and continue breastfeeding since, ubiquitously, a mother is more than twice as likely to stop breastfeeding in the month she returns to work.

For generations, systemic oppression has stripped Black women of the opportunity to breastfeed, especially at length as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization. The racialized trauma of wet nursing is the genesis of Black women’s breastfeeding journey in America… Implicit bias — like what I experienced — is one of the underlying factors that contributes to low rates of initiation and duration today. In between, there are untold stories of deception and loss suffered by countless, nameless women who believed their doctors, accepted their orders and the accompanying cloak of shame truly believing they weren’t enough. To this end, unless a conversation begins by acknowledging and addressing these underpinnings, it’s a muted discussion with subtitles in a foreign language. It exists without context.

Denys nursing her son

Despite the odds, my beautiful boy and I have continued to “engage in [the] dynamic, bidirectional, biological dialogue” of breastfeeding these past eight months and plan to continue for at least another eight more. More than the beneficial neurocognitive outcomes, I’ve been inspired to continue this journey based on the mommy-baby bonding experience of which I believe we shall reap dividends for a lifetime.

Exclusively breastfeeding my son for his first six months of life positioned him in the 94th percentile for weight and the 91st for height. Beyond the stats, though, very few things compare to the enveloping warmth of my sweet baby’s 20-plus pound, two-feet tall body wrapped around mine suckling for nourishment. I am imbued with all the nutritional riches my baby needs — as were my great-grandmothers, grandmothers and my mommy, too.


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