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Infant Mortality and Breastfeeding Stereotypes Among African American Women

Whist doing online research for this article, I was struck and troubled by the statistics I read about the infant mortality rate of black babies and the poor birth outcomes within black communities in America – infant and maternal deaths, low birth weight and pre-term birth rates. There seems to be a general unspoken understanding that only women from poor backgrounds would have poor birth outcomes and most likely to have unhealthy babies. But this is far from the truth. The truth of the matter is that black women from all socio-economic status are affected. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has the infant mortality rate at 6.7 per 1,000 live births for white women, compared with 13.3 per 1,000 for African-Americans, and the Center of Minority Health, reports that Black babies are 2-3 times more likely to die than white babies or babies of any other ethnicity. But one would naturally assume that black middle and upper class blacks would more likely have healthier babies and better birth outcomes since they are working in higher paying jobs and are more likely be able to afford better health care.

There has been significant evidence which suggest stress may have a significant impact on infant mortality within black communities, and so research has begun to look into the role of stress and its impact on black women. There has been research which suggest that stress for black women may be due to chronic racism faced by African-American women during their lifetime which affects their birth outcomes. In the acclaimed documentary, “Unnatural Causes,” a critical examination of health care disparities in the U.S., Dr. Richard Davis states, “There’s something about growing up as a black female in the United States that’s not good for your childbearing health.”

I was also struck to learn that breastfeeding rates are lower in African-American women when compared to other women of other racial and ethnic groups nationwide.  In a recent study, 54 percent of black mothers breastfed their infants from birth, compared with 74 percent of white mothers and 80 percent of Hispanic mothers. Breast-feeding rates for all groups, including Asian and Native American mothers, drop after six months. But just 27 percent of African-American mothers continued to breastfeed, compared with 43 percent of white mothers and 45 percent of Hispanic mothers.

Then there are stereotypes narratives surrounding black breastfeeding mothers – like black breastfeeding mothers not getting breastfeeding help in hospitals because “it’s a well-known fact that Black women do not breastfeed” or black women receive less than prenatal care because “black women are super fertile and we don’t know how to keep our legs closed.”  Kimberly Seals Allers, a Journalist, Author and Advocate in an interview with the Guardian earlier this year says, “A relative said to me that breastfeeding was for poor people.” She adds that “there’s a stereotype among black women that the kind of woman who breastfeeds is more like Erykah Badu. So when I show up, I’m like: ‘Listen. I’m chemically dependent – that’s my hair – and I’m rarely without three- or four-inch heels. And I’m a breastfeeding mum. A lot of times, people don’t expect to see me as a breastfeeding advocate … [and] No one seems to have the answer for the low breastfeeding rates among black women in America, though there are many theories. “When white women stopped, we stopped too. Now Angelina Jolie and Gisele are breastfeeding and white women are too, [but] black women did not follow suit…”

In Islam, we should be free of such stereotypes and Muslim women should not feel ashamed and uncomfortable breastfeeding. The recommended time period for breastfeeding is two full years and a mother’s reward for this is so great that if she dies during this period she dies with the status of a martyr. Allah says in the Holy Qur’an, “The mothers shall give such to their offspring for two whole years, if the father desires to complete the term. But he shall bear the cost of their food and clothing on equitable terms…No soul shall have a burden laid on it greater than it can bear. No mother shall be treated unfairly on account of her child. Nor father on account of his child, an heir shall be chargeable in the same way. If they both decide on weaning, by mutual consent, and after due consultation, there is no blame on them… “(Quran, 2:233)

I breastfed my son for two years and four months and I remember receiving comments from family which often made me feel as though I was doing something wrong. Everyone had an opinion about breastfeeding versus formula and when is the right time for a mother to cease breastfeeding – an ‘ideal’ and ‘acceptable’ (by their standards) number in their heads. “You’re still breastfeeding!” Yes I am. Why? “That child is too big to be on breast.” “When are you planning on weaning him? When he’s two… what! Two? That’s too long…” I don’t think this was linked to preconceived stereotypes of being black mothers themselves, but rather more about societal expectations and how we are socialised to think about breastfeeding and what society considers as the appropriate time to stop.

So how do we go about addressing these issues? Maybe cultural practices and beliefs have should be the focus for change. Community leaders, Churches, Mosques and other religious groups, women groups and charities, relevant government bodies and health centres all have to work together to address the above issues and to help black communities to understand and confront them head on. Education is the key – giving black women and their families accurate and relevant information, starting on a community level and within the homes of black families to change negative and inaccurate perceptions and unhealthy beliefs.

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