Commentary Family

Black Colleges Should Advocate for Breastfeeding Families

Emma Akpan

With full access to lactation spaces and resources on college campuses, Black mothers would not have to choose between their education and their breastfeeding goals. They could have both.

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

When a 22-year-old student at North Carolina Central University, who spoke with Rewire about her experiences as a parent, needs to breastfeed or pump on campus, she has to go to her car. That’s because, she says, there are no designated spaces for her to express breast milk on the historically Black campus that serves about 8,500 students.

By now, many of us know the benefits of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding provides all the necessary nutrients a child needs, and breastfed babies experience fewer infections and illnesses. Not to mention breastfeeding is cheaper than buying formula.

Unfortunately, Black women in the United States statistically are less likely to breastfeed than their white counterparts. Studies show that Black women initiate breastfeeding with their children at a rate of 58.9 percent, whereas it is 75.2 percent for white women.

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While many Black women do breastfeed, some unapologetically so, there is a running list as to why other Black mothers choose not to. For one, Black mothers are less likely to be encouraged by hospitals to breastfeed, typically the first point of contact for breastfeeding education. And many Black mothers are in under-resourced communities, where breastfeeding is discouraged or just outright impossible due to a lack of support.

Just last week, a few days before the start of Black Breastfeeding Week (August 25-31), the Center for Social Inclusion released a report that further outlined the complications women of color face when initiating breastfeeding. The report discusses that fact that Black women are more likely to work in the service industry. While 20 percent of white women work service-industry jobs, 32 percent of Latinas and 28 percent of Black women do. These positions do not allow for time to attend breastfeeding classes. Lactation education is key in introducing mothers to breastfeeding and without it and community support, Black women will turn to formula.

It’s also an important point to remember the history of racism in this country and how Black mothers were forced to feed their white employer’s children, for little or no pay. When formula was introduced, it gave Black mothers a chance to choose to offer their bodies as nourishment for their children or not.

Black mothers who are also students have an even more difficult time. Black mothers know the benefits of breastfeeding, but still forgo the practice because it’s, well, inconvenient. Imagine trying to worry about breastfeeding while attending school or returning to work, where people may be unfriendly toward pregnancy and not used to accommodating a breastfeeding colleague. In one particular study, entitled “African-American and Latina Adolescent Mothers’ Infant Feeding Decisions and Breastfeeding Practices: A Qualitative Study,” published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Black teenage moms could not imagine breastfeeding because it would get in the way of them returning to school and their part-time jobs. Students may feel uncomfortable or even embarrassed, because of the stigma of public breastfeeding, to even make an inquiry of where to pump in education spaces.

With full access to lactation spaces and resources on college campuses, Black mothers would not have to choose between their education and their breastfeeding goals. They could have both.

National policy attempts to make accommodations for mothers who are also students. For example, Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, includes pregnant and breastfeeding students. This means, a person cannot be kicked out of school for being pregnant or pumping. However, Title IX’s language is ambiguous about lactation spaces on high school and college campuses. It falls short because it does not require separate areas for mothers to express breast milk comfortably—a teacher or administrator just would get into trouble for asking a student to leave.

The Affordable Care Act also tries to make accommodations. Fortunately, it stipulates that any employer with 50 or more employees has to have a space for its employees to express milk. The policy, however, is only extended to non-exempt hourly employees, and certainly does not benefit students on campus.

Advocates at some colleges, however, are helping to push for lactation spaces that are convenient for mothers.

The University of North Carolina (UNC) is excelling in supporting both staff and students with lactating spaces on campus. Thanks to an anonymous donor, UNC’s Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute’s mission is to maintain spaces for students and faculty to pump, and to educate the community about the importance of breastfeeding. Since the institute’s founding, North Carolina’s rates of breastfeeding have steadily risen.

As a part of the program, UNC Chapel Hill has 11 spaces available on campus—open to both faculty and students.

But while campus policies are important, advocates must also build relationships with campus communities to advocate for mothers.

In 2012, Vanderbilt University launched the “Breastfeeding Welcomed Here” campaign. The campaign began because one student pushed the administration to offer more support to young parents like herself, who was able to receive support from her friends while parenting and attending college. Katie Garcia, as the Gender Matters Coordinator at the Vanderbilt’s Women’s Center, made sure that there were private places for women to pump or feed their child.

Before the Women’s Center began advocating for spaces convenient for students on the main campus, Vanderbilt students traveled to the medical campus, a drudging commute, but not every place on that campus was welcome to them.

And even if there are private spaces, like a graduate student’s personal office, it still may not be private. As Garcia explained to Rewire: “One student was in her office, but since there was no lock, her academic advisor walked in on her pumping, said his piece, and walked out. Didn’t even apologize.”

She modeled the campus program after an initiative by the Nashville Health Department that distributed “Breastfeeding Welcomed Here” stickers in public spaces such as restaurants and libraries.

“We built relationships and asked departments to get involved,” Garcia said. And they did. After pushing partners to make sure that women had a private place to pump, Vanderbilt now has six private places in different academic departments on campus for mothers to pump.

When spaces are not available at universities, students may not even know how to, or want to, begin these conversations. I talked to another former student and asked her if was she directly discouraged at her school, the University of Virginia, from public breastfeeding. She said she wasn’t discouraged, but added that she knew it wasn’t even an option.

“I was already the only Black woman in the program, and I was criticized for having a child,” she told me. Breastfeeding in class in lieu of private spaces on campus was out of the question, because she felt that she was under so much scrutiny already.

It can be scary if a student is the only one advocating for a place to pump. Breastfeeding already carries a stigma, and some students do not want to be singled out. Advocates such as the Women’s Center at Vanderbilt or concerned community members can help students who do not realize these resources are possible, or do not know whom to contact to implement simple lactation spaces.

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like North Carolina Central University can certainly benefit from implementing simple breastfeeding spaces for students. It’s not a large expense: It can be as simple as cleaning out a larger broom closet and putting a chair and refrigerator in there for students to express and store milk.

While it’s unclear how many HBCUs offer these services, we do know HBCUs can be leaders in encouraging breastfeeding amongst Black mothers by implementing breastfeeding policies on their campuses, especially given the facts of how many Black mothers do not breastfeed.

Students should not have to choose between their education or work and breastfeeding.

HBCUs need advocates, like the anonymous donor at UNC Chapel Hill, to provide support for breastfeeding moms. Without the push from mothers, community partners, and other concerned citizens, administrations will not think about this.

During this Black Breastfeeding Week, we should remember the many Black mothers on college campuses who are getting an education and raising a family at the same time. The two opportunities do not have to conflict, as long as the necessary accommodations are made.

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