Commentary Family

Celebrate Mothers Who Breastfeed, Including Black Women Who Do So Publicly

Ruth Jeannoel

For me, breastfeeding is not only an exercise of reproductive justice, it is a revolutionary and political act. I choose to breastfeed in public as a way to challenge the notion that Black women do not breastfeed. Not only do we breastfeed, we can do it unapologetically, in your face.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

August 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week, a campaign designed to celebrate working mamas across the globe who breastfeed, which contributes to healthy development of their babies.

For me, breastfeeding is not only an exercise of reproductive justice, it is a revolutionary and political act. I choose to breastfeed in public as a way to challenge the notion that Black women do not breastfeed. Not only do we breastfeed, we can do it unapologetically, in your face.

As a young parent, breastfeeding was not easy, but with a couple of tips from other mamas and the right support I was able to find my way and breastfeed both of my daughters.

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One of the World Health Organizations global nutrition targets is that by 2025 it aims to increase to at least 50 percent the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months. For Black mothers, because of systemic oppression and the fact that Black babies are breastfed less often than other babies, we have a ways to go. But one way for advocates to show that we are up for the challenge of increasing breastfeeding in the Black community is to encourage breastfeeding in public. By doing so, it puts the focus on the baby’s needs, which ultimately should outweigh the potential discomfort of onlookers and the stigma associated with expressing milk.

To be sure, breastfeeding is not easy, and ultimately it’s up to a mama to decide what works for her and her family. For me, breastfeeding has worked best.

Even before I had children, I always told myself that I would breastfeed. It was important to me because while growing up, my mother always told me positive stories of what breastfeeding her children, myself included, was like. “When you were a baby, I breastfed you for 18 months,” she would say. She was so proud when she said that.

She also told me that I didn’t get sick as often as other babies she knew, and that breast milk made me so strong that I started walking at a much earlier than age than was expected. So when I had my own children I was excited to begin breastfeeding.

But by that time, there was a lot of stigma associated with breastfeeding that I had to wade through. For example, I needed to overcome the notion that Black women don’t breastfeed, so I read a lot about breastfeeding, eventually came across the Black Women Do Breastfeed blog, and joined a support group. With some education and tips from other mamas, I was able to reach my personal goal of breastfeeding my children.

I breastfed my first daughter for three months, and I’ve been breastfeeding my second daughter for about 18 months now. I’m feeling just as passionate about it as I was when my mother told me about her experiences. For me, it’s not about the length of time that you breastfeed, though, but rather that you have the choice to nurse where and when you choose to, and that when you do, you are supported and not seen as a outcast.

To help other new mothers, here are five tips that were shared with me by my support system, including my own mother, friends, and other family. These tips can help you reach your goal of nursing in public unapologetically.

Tip 1: Be present with your little one. To outsiders, it may feel like it’s about them because they may be uncomfortable, but it’s not about them. It’s about you and your little one eating. Look into your child’s eyes, connect, and nurse your baby without concern for others’ feelings.

Tip 2: Wear a comfortable bra. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just one that can easily be lifted from the bottom to the top of the breast.

Tip 3: You could cover up, or you could ask other people to cover up. I was once at a doctor’s office and the nurse asked if I needed a cover up or a nursing room, and I politely answered: “No, thank you.”

Tip 4: Be gentle with people who are curious. This is a great teaching opportunity to normalize breastfeeding. Take the opportunity to share with someone why you’re breastfeeding: They might just learn something new. But learn your own boundaries.

Tip 5: Wear layers; it will make the job easier. Wearing a stretchy tank top you can pull under your breast will cover your belly, while a t-shirt you can lift up will cover the top of your breast.

I have breastfed at malls, community events, meetings, panels on which I have participated, protests, rallies, and on the side of the road, just to name a few. The best tip that I could really share with a young mama who wants to feed her child, whenever, however, wherever, is that you should breathe and be gentle with yourself. If your baby has to eat, she has to eat.

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