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.

Firstfeeding coalition focuses on enriching Indigenous lives

Heidi Abed, Executive Director Ayllu Community Network, gave birth 20 years apart. With this spacing, Abed saw firsthand how mothers are treated according to their age and perceived experiences.

Photo Courtesy of IFCC

As a 17-year-old, medical professionals doubted her when she told them she was in labor. When she was sent away from the hospital, Abed almost gave birth at home alone.

“I had to call an ambulance,” she recollects.

At 37, Abed desired a water birth, but her insurance denied coverage for this natural option.

“Even 20 years later, I have not seen enough improvement in maternal support provided for any natural options during birth, postpartum and especially with lactation,” Abed shares.

What’s more, she says it was like pulling teeth to try to gain access to a lactation care provider in the hospital.

“They told me that they had lactation consultants, but a couple of days later, they never got the chance [to come see me.]”

Once she and her baby were discharged, it was hard to find lactation care too. When she did connect with one, the lactation specialist used language Abed didn’t understand, and she says she had to look it up on Google to try to make sense of it.

Established in 2018, Abed joined the Indigenous Firstfeeding Coalition Colorado (IFCC)– a coalition created to combat extremely low lactation rates in Indigenous communities due to generational and historical trauma— a few years after its launch. [More on addressing historical trauma here.]

“I am doing what I can to fill a gaping void for far too many,” Abed shares.

Abed’s comrade at IFCC, LJ, has been invested in supporting and educating parents about lactation since having a child in 2013. Being Native, enriching Native lives stays a priority for LJ.

Abed and LJ  have grown in their knowledge and ability to help support others by completing the Indigenous Lactation Counselor Training and Cornerstone Full Spectrum Doula Training.

The team has also embraced inclusivity leading to their name change from Indigenous Breastfeeding Coalition Colorado to its current name, along with their handle across social media: NativeNipples.

The coalition networks with many other community organizations promoting and engaging with their events. This summer has been full of opportunities to connect and more to come like the Breastival, the Indigenous Mind Body Gathering, the Healing Hoop veteran honoring event, Elephant Circle video contest, and the second part of Tewa Women United’s Lactation After Loss.

“Interconnectedness and networking is really everything since we are volunteers with no funding,” Abed begins. “Our aforementioned training was made available through other partnerships at no cost to us. Also, our communities are relatively small and spread out, so pooling together knowledge and resources across social media helps bridge geographic gaps. Bringing light to each other’s efforts makes us more effective, supported, and [helps] avoid redundancy.”

IFCC at the 9 Health Fair in 2019.

Abed also points out the links between Black maternal health and Indigenous maternal health and how they are working together with allied organizations to dismantle many shared experiences that impact maternal infant health.

With the 3rd Annual Indigenous Milk Medicine Week this week, honoring the theme “Strengthening Our Traditions From Birth and Beyond”, IFCC will host an Instagram Live event. Follow them on social media and stay tuned for more information throughout the week.

Knowing that Indigenous cultures are diverse and complex, the learning and honoring never ends! Check out the following to learn more and support these important efforts.