A while ago my 6-year-old and his best friend talked about if chocolate milk comes from “special black cow” at a play date. The conversation just made me and the other mother laugh. And then, randomly, I told the other mom, “you know there is actually a documentary called ‘chocolate milk.’ It is about the breastfeeding disparities in black moms.”
“That’s crazy,” she said. “Don’t black moms breastfeed more because they cannot afford formula?”
I was speechless with an indescribable emotion. After a moment of silence, I said, “Well, actually black mothers have the lowest breastfeeding rate.”
“How could that be?” She questioned, “I used formula. It’s super expensive. It may be a stereotype but I think many black moms cannot afford it. So don’t they just breastfeed? Breastfeeding is easy and cheap.”
Once again I was speechless. That statement was just so wrong in so many ways.
A little background: I am Asian and my friend is white. So none of us have experienced what a black mother might have experienced. I cannot speak for a black woman, but I can say two things for sure: One, breastfeeding is not easy or cheap. Two, mothers don’t breastfeed because they cannot afford formula. They formula feed because they cannot afford breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is only “cheap and easy” when everything goes 100 percent smooth. Breast-milk has a cost, direct and indirect. Directly there is breastfeeding-related products and services. Indirectly there is an impact of breastfeeding on a woman’s future earnings. A British paper found that women who nurse their children longer are less likely to come back to work within a year after giving birth, and that breastfeeding-friendly corporate policies, such as on-site day care and pumping rooms, increase the likelihood of coming back to work while breastfeeding, but only for the better-educated women.
So mothers actually formula feed because they cannot afford the cost of breastfeeding. According to 2017 CDC data, breastfeeding initiation rates are much higher in higher-income, largely white communities. In fact, according to a study in Breastfeeding Medicine, mothers with lower rates of breastfeeding “tend to be young, low-income, African American, unmarried, less educated, participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)…and more likely to report their pregnancy was unintended.”
There are numerous reasons for this disparity. The bottom line is: breastfeeding is nothing free, cheap or easy. It is a privilege, while it really should be a human right. It shocked me that people still say “mothers breastfeed because they cannot afford formula” in 2020. It is a rough reminder that the value of breastfeeding still needs to be promoted and the right of breastfeeding still needs to be protected.