Public education program focuses on African American breastfeeding disparities

The first several weeks after my daughter Willow’s birth were remarkable. I was full of the most incredible, indescribable love for my new infant. At the same time, I felt strangely alone.

As a fairly young mom, I didn’t belong to any kind of community of mothers going through experiences similar to mine, and I longed for those connections.

ION-bannerAbout two months ago, Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA announced the launch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health’s project It’s Only Natural, a public education campaign aimed at increasing awareness among African American women of the importance of breastfeeding and providing helpful how-to tips.

Part of the campaign includes a My Breastfeeding Story component which provides new moms with inspiring personal stories from other mothers and even a new dad’s perspective on the journey of parenthood.

It’s Only Natural’s breastfeeding subject matter expert Ursuline Singleton, MPH, RD with the Office on Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reflects on the importance of storytelling and making connections.

“What stories do is they break down barriers,” she says and quotes Teddy Roosevelt: Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Which is why Singleton stresses the importance of lactation professionals truly understanding and embracing the reason for the It’s Only Natural campaign.

“Cultural sensitivity is a key factor in the success of this campaign,” Singleton explains.

Lactation care workers must listen to families’ concerns and must not make assumptions or judgements, she adds.

Responding to breastfeeding disparities

It’s Only Natural was developed in response to what Singleton refers to as unacceptable disparities in African American breastfeeding initiation and duration rates as addressed in the  CDC’s recent report on breastfeeding disparities.

With Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin’s 2011 Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding in mind, the campaign responds with an action-based plan to squash breastfeeding barriers outlined by Benjamin.

Looking further back, It’s Only Natural is somewhat a continuation of the HHS Blueprint for Action on Breastfeeding released in 2000 by former Surgeon General David Satcher as well as HHS’s Babies Were Born to be Breastfed national campaign.

Extensive, formative research went into the creation of It’s Only Natural materials. Focus groups were initially conducted in three major cities: Montgomery, Ala., Washington D.C. and Chicago, Ill. Additional focus groups followed in New Orleans, La., Philadelphia, Pa., and Jackson, Miss.

Throughout the development of the project, contributors found that female family members have a very strong influence on a mother’s decision to breastfeed, especially in the African American community. In response, the campaign offers information on how to get your family on board with breastfeeding.

“We have a unique opportunity like never before to address breastfeeding rates through [this] campaign,” Singleton says.

Providing access to comprehensive materials

It’s not enough to acknowledge that breastfeeding barriers exist; action is needed to break them down.

It’s Only Natural offers comprehensive, action-based information for mothers including videos, storytelling, how-to advice and more. Moreover, the materials were specifically designed to reflect the experience of African American moms and families to better serve an underserved community.

The campaign keeps the lactation professional in mind, too. Campaign developers created the Leader’s Guide which details how to host breastfeeding sessions right down to planning the event.  Posters and fact sheets and radio PSAs are also available for the public’s use.

While the campaign’s materials are amazingly complete, Singleton reminds leaders to always acknowledge how different audiences learn; How will a group of teenagers best retain the information presented? What is the optimal way to teach a group of expecting mothers, a diverse group of adults, family members or community members in general?

Reaching more mothers through The Village

Another portion of the It’s Only Natural vision includes bringing together diverse partners to better reach new mothers. As we know, collaboration is a key component to helping breastfeeding moms and babies.

“We use the phrase ‘It Takes a Village,’” Singleton says. “The thing about the village is that it’s not just a catchy phrase.”

The village includes an entire health care system as well as a community that conveys a culture of breastfeeding, she adds.

Relatives, employers, and other African American breastfeeding mothers are also part of the village and create a positive breastfeeding culture.

Unfortunately, health care professionals often don’t expect African American mothers to breastfeed, so they fail to provide them with information or proper breastfeeding support to help these mothers be successful with their healthy infant feeding choice, Singleton tells me.

Part of the problem may be, as outlined in the Surgeon General’s Call to Action, a shortage of health care providers who specialize in lactation. Even more, our nation lacks African American lactation professionals to serve African American women.

In response, the campaign offers several support sections including building your breastfeeding network.

Anticipating campaign outcomes

While still early in the program, Singleton says there is a lot of excitement about the campaign.

Program manager and co-founder of the African American Breastfeeding Network of Milwaukee Dalvery Blackwell, BA, IBCLC agrees.

“I’m eager to start using the materials to see the reaction of the people we serve,” she says.

Blackwell was drawn to the campaign by its access to printed materials like the breastfeeding fact sheets.

In order to keep track of the success of the campaign, Singleton says they are and will track the use of radio PSAs as well as receive reports through partner organizations.

Ultimately, the real success of the program will come when African American breastfeeding initiation and duration rates rise and when the ethnic gap closes.

The campaign would benefit from expanding its traditional and nontraditional partners, Singleton says.

She wants the public to embrace the campaign and to utilize the various resources presented, because when the whole community supports breastfeeding as the normal infant feeding choice, mothers will gain confidence to feed their babies.

Singleton also reminds us that if there is a problem, there is a solution. It’s Only Natural offers a National Breastfeeding hotline open Monday through Friday from 9 am to 6 pm EST. Call them at 800-994-9662.

Click here to explore the It’s Only Natural website.

How will you use the It’s Only Natural materials in your community? Share your comments below.

Leave a Reply