Breastfeeding is food sovereignty. Breastfeeding is health equity. Breastfeeding is healing.

–This post is part of our 10-year anniversary series “Breastfeeding is…”

Breastfeeding is food sovereignty. Breastfeeding is health equity. Breastfeeding is healing.

Breastfeeding is a “weapon of mass construction”, a phrase coined by Camie Jae Goldhammer, MSW, LICSW, IBCLC, (Sisseton-Wahpeton).

In her Reclaiming the Tradition of Breastfeeding: the Foundation of a Nation webinar, Goldhammer describes how breastfeeding has the power to heal those suffering the effects of generational trauma, specifically through the release of oxytocin, subsequently allowing mothers and their babies to feel empowered and independent.

Photo by Luiza Braun

Kathleen Kendall Tackett’s work also illuminates how breastfeeding can heal trauma. Her videos, How Birth Trauma Affects Breastfeeding and Breastfeeding Can Heal Birth Trauma and Breastfeeding’s Healing Impact on Sexual Assault Trauma discuss the mechanisms behind why and how breastfeeding can be helpful for trauma survivors. Essentially, breastfeeding allows for the down regulation of stress responses, specifically adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol, and similar to exercise, improves maternal mood, decreases the risk of depression, decreases hostility, and improves the mother infant bond.

Jennie Toland, BSN, RN, CLC offers commentary on the role lactation care providers play in offering trauma-informed care in this piece.

This Invisibila episode, Therapy Ghostbusters, shares the incredible story of how a Cambodian practitioner worked to help heal an entire community from generational trauma. It took him over a year to simply earn individuals’ trust.

“…That’s pretty unique,” the podcast hosts point out and offers insight into how our nation approaches care for individuals with specific mental health needs and cultural considerations.

Goldhammer quotes Round Rock elder Annie Kahn:  “When a mother nurses her baby, she is giving that child her name, her story and her life’s song. A nursed baby will grow to be strong in body, mind and spirit.”

This connection to the past that Kahn refers to, also offers a form of healing. Breastfeeding is an example of Indigenous food sovereignty, “a part of living culture” and facilitates the revitalization of traditional knowledge. (Cidro, et al 2018)

The revitalization of breastfeeding spans the Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) experience and is a channel to champion equity.

Ifeyinwa V. Asiodu,  Kimarie Bugg,  and Aunchalee E.L. Palmquist write in Achieving Breastfeeding Equity and Justice in Black Communities: Past, Present, and Future:

“Breastfeeding is an especially important public health issue in Black communities, particularly given that Black families and communities continue to experience the highest burden related to poor maternal and infant health outcomes, including higher incidence of preterm birth, low birth weight, maternal mortality and morbidity, infant mortality, and lower breastfeeding rates. Owing to lifetime exposure of racism, bias, and stress, Black women experience higher rates of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and aggressive breast cancer. Given that cardiovascular disease and postpartum hemorrhage are leading causes of maternal mortality and morbidity, increasing breastfeeding rates among Black women can potentially save lives.”

Photo by Emily Finch

More specifically, studies show that the experience of racial discrimination accelerates the shortening of telomeres (the repetitive sequences of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect the cell) and ultimately contributes to an increase in people’s risks of developing diseases.

It has been found that higher anxiety scores and inflammation are associated with shorter telomere length.

Because physical and psychological stressors trigger the inflammatory response system, one way to counter this reaction is by supporting ongoing breastfeeding relationships; when breastfeeding is going well, it protects mothers from stress. (Kendall-Tackett, 2007)

Another study found that early exclusive breastfeeding is associated with longer telomeres in children.

Photo by Luiza Braun

The authors of Achieving Breastfeeding Equity and Justice in Black Communities: Past, Present, and Future continue, “Yet breastfeeding is rarely seen as a women’s health, reproductive health, or a public health strategy to address or reduce maternal mortality and morbidity in the U.S. Inequities in lactation support and breastfeeding education exacerbate health inequities experienced by Black women, specifically maternal mortality and morbidity, and thus a greater investment in perinatal lactation and breastfeeding education and resources is warranted. Breastfeeding is an essential part of women’s reproductive health.”

Journalist and maternal child health advocate Kimberly Seals Allers’ approach is one “For Black people, from Black people.”

“…The call to revive, restore and reclaim Black breastfeeding is an internal call to action,” Kimberly Seals Allers begins in Black Breastfeeding Is a Racial Equity Issue.  “… Breastfeeding is our social justice movement as we declare the health and vitality of our infants as critical to the health and vitality of our communities.”

Specifically through her work with Narrative Nation, Seals Allers and colleagues are promoting health equity “by democratizing how the story of health disparities is told,” centering BIPOC voices. Additionally, through her Birthright podcast, KSA uplifts stories of  joy and healing in Black birth.

Especially after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, organizations made statements about their commitments to dismantling structural racism and focusing efforts on equity.

Equity has become a buzzword; in fact, one author brands the sentiment “Fakequity”. This year, United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) National Conference and Convening presenters expressed their fatigue with the word.

“We want to see action,” they said.

Nikki & Nikki LIVE offer their Allies, Advocates and Activists Equity in Lactation webinar which covers the meaning of equitable in lactation care, how to show up for the marginalized and how to make a lasting impact.

In other efforts, the CDC has identified breastfeeding as a priority area to address health inequities.

Photo by Luiza Braun

NICHQ’s Achieving Breastfeeding Equity campaign also focuses on closing breastfeeding disparity gaps, viewing their efforts through an equity lens.

Director of policy and partnerships at the National Women’s Health Network Denys Symonette Mitchell offers commentary on a way forward with key policies that will ensure investment in breastfeeding to ultimately advance health equity.

Watch Racism and the Colonial Roots of Gendered Language in Public Health and Biomedicine with Dr. Aunchalee Palmquist, PhD, IBCLC for more on these issues.  

 

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As part of our celebration, we are giving away an online learning module with contact hours each week. Here’s how to enter into the drawings:

Email info@ourmilkyway.org with your name and “OMW is 10” in the subject line.

This week, in the body of the email, tell us about how you are contributing to working toward healthy equity.

Subsequent weeks will have a different prompt in the blog post.

We will conduct a new drawing each week over the 10-week period.  Please email separately each week to be entered in the drawing. You may only win once. If your name is drawn, we will email a link with access to the learning module. The winner of the final week will score a grand finale swag bag.

Musings on unity beyond National Breastfeeding Month

This year’s National Breastfeeding Month (NBM) celebration has come to an end, but our momentum as maternal child health advocates– striving for equitable care for all– powers on. 

The 2020 NBM theme, Many Voices United, called on us to come together to identify and implement the policy and system changes that are needed to ensure that all families have the support and resources they need in order to feed their babies healthily. 

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Colorful Hands 1 of 3 / George Fox students Annabelle Wombacher, Jared Mar, Sierra Ratcliff and Benjamin Cahoon collaborated on the mural. / Article: https://www.orartswatch.org/painting-the-town-in-newberg/

Achieving this shared goal requires daily self-work and individual introspection so that our collective can be as effective as ever. No matter how socially-conscious, open-minded, anti-racist, (insert adjective), we think we may be, we still have learned biases and prejudices that require near constant attention. Much like I remind my children to brush their teeth every morning and every night, as a white, binary woman, I must remind myself to examine my biases and my privilege daily.  

With NBM’s theme of unity in mind, this Upworthy video features an art installation that demonstrates our society’s interconnectedness. With a piece of string, the installation shows an intricate, densely-woven web created by individuals wrapping thread around 32 poles with identifiers arranged in a circle. 

“You can see that even though we all have different experiences and we all identify in different ways…We are really one,” the project’s creator says in the video. 

The sentiment and the product are truly beautiful and fascinating. While appreciating the beauty of unity, it’s important to keep our critical thinking and progressive attitude sharp, refraining from slipping into too comfortable a space where change cannot happen.  

Recently, I’ve seen a few statements on unity circulating social media that I’d like to embrace with a “Yes!” Instead, I find myself reacting, “Yes! But…” 

My worry is that these well-intentioned mantras we live by– much like some might argue certain microaggressions are well-intentioned– are also dismissive. 

  1. We all bleed the same blood. 
  1. Children are not born racist.
  1. I will teach my child to love your child. Period. 

Let’s break those down starting with “We all bleed the same blood.”  Some things to consider:

First, Ashley May for The Thirbly writes,

“Black breasts do not exist separate from Black bodies and the situated existence we navigate in this world nor the racialized experience of motherhood. Racism and classism intertwine to act as a containment, working to make some of us feel as if we are walking in quicksand. Add to this the complexities of new motherhood and the needs of the postpartum body and now we have a cocktail for failure. Literal milk plugs. So, although her precious body may be able to produce milk, her situation prevents her and her baby from receiving it. Even the intention to breastfeed cannot save the milk of the mother who cannot find time for pump breaks as she works the night shift as a security guard. Or, perhaps she cannot figure out why pumping is not working, but she doesn’t have the time to seek the educational or financial resources to help her problem solve.” (underline added by OMW) 

Racism affects People of Color (POC) at a cellular level. Studies show that the experience of racial discrimination accelerates the shortening of telomeres (the repetitive sequences of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect the cell) and ultimately contributes to an increase in people’s risks of developing diseases. 

It’s epigenetics; the environments POC of are growing in affect their biology.  

Children are not born racist, but white children are born into a racist society that they will benefit from. 

From the very beginning, white children have a better chance of survival than Children of Color; African Americans have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites

What’s more, Black children are three times more likely to die when cared for by white doctors, while the mortality rate for white babies is largely unaffected by the doctor’s race, a recent study found. 

White children are born into being part of the problem and just the same, can be part of equitable solutions. 

I will teach my child to love your child. Period. 

Love is action, and even if it’s easier said than done, there are so many ways to teach our children about race, inequities and injustice. Afterall, “If Black children are ‘old enough’ to experience racism then white children are ‘old enough’ to learn about it.” – Blair Amadeus Imani

  • Be careful what you say. As a young girl on my way to ballet class one day, my mom, while locking the car doors,  pointed out the barred doors and boarded windows in the neighborhood we rolled through. 

“That’s how you know this is not a safe neighborhood,” my mom warned me. 

No questions asked, I noted the building facades, and then I noted the Black people. Because there wasn’t any further conversation, I made the connection that Black people must be “not safe” and ultimately, that there must be something wrong with Black people if they’re confined to neighborhoods “like this.” 

Imagine the impact we could make if we showed our children that there is nothing inherently wrong with Black people that ending racism can’t solve.

As a nation we are apathetic, made apparent by a recent poll. The survey shows that only 30 percent of white people have taken concrete action to better understand racial issues after George Floyd’s killing. 

The poll also shows that White Americans are also the least likely to support the Black Lives Matter movement, with 47 percent expressing support.

Is it because we don’t claim it as our problem? Is it because we misunderstand the problem? Is it because it’s easier to point fingers at others than ourselves? 

I’d like to leave you with this video of writer Kimberly Jones where she provides a brief history of the American economy told through an analogy using the board game Monopoly. I urge you to watch it, and then watch it again, and again, and again. 

There is no time for complacency within these truly abhorrent systems. When we start to lose sight of that, envision the tangle of yarn from the aforementioned unity art installation and remember that vastly different experiences are networked together.