During our first four months of life, humans see the world in black and white.
While our vision is limited, we feel, smell, hear and taste the world. It’s not long though before color perception guides us a great deal.
What’s your favorite color? quickly becomes a question of particular interest to and for little ones.
We’re taught that colors correspond with certain emotions. Color can signal danger or disease, enhance and improve learning comprehension, express personality, influence consumer behavior, and to some degree help treat PTSD and other disorders. (Note that symbolism of color changes by culture.)
In the maternal child health sphere, the concept of color can be used as a tool too.
We use color to help determine when a lactating person’s colostrum has started to transition to mature milk. Splashes of stool in babies’ diapers are a similar measure.
Physical space and color influence a breastfeeding person’s experience and overall state of being.
How does the color of a room make a breastfeeding person feel? How does the color of a room affect the way a person responds to a breast pump? How does a feeding baby respond to the colors around them?
Categorizing emotion with color
Just as color and chromature evoke emotions, conversely, color can be used to reflect and categorize our emotions.
Falmouth-based landscape designer Cynthia Rose of Searose Designs introduces a practice she uses for identifying emotions through color.
It’s a sort of social interaction soccer game where she issues yellow cards or red cards during exchanges that become inappropriate, uncomfortable or intolerable.
Similar to a soccer match, yellow cards are warnings and red cards mean immediate dismissal from the interaction.
Rose explains that this colored card system can be adopted by mothers to help navigate the playing field of parenthood and by lactation professionals working alongside their peers.
Interestingly, our bodies sometimes react to situations with a physiological red card: blushing. As lactation care providers, becoming fixated on one part of the breastfeeding person’s body can be easy to do, but no detail should be overlooked. Blushing might be a sign to back off or change the approach.
Rose suggests another tool lactation care providers can adopt to gain a deeper understanding of their clients’ experiences. Suggesting clients use a color chart of emotions to identify their mood or experience may prove helpful to those who are visually inclined and perhaps less verbal.
For those who are visually impaired or somehow differently-abled, color might still be utilized. Even if an experience isn’t truly synesthetic, color can still be communicated through senses other than sight in a metaphorical way. One might “describe the note C sharp as red” for example or that they’re feeling blue. [More here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/hearing-colors-tasting-shapes/]
At times when new parenthood becomes overwhelming, care providers might suggest parents use color to promote mindfulness and calm. Simply becoming aware of and naming the colors around oneself can help to anchor within the moment. This practice is similar to what is described in this activity for children and can be adapted to any situation.
Color breathing is also a simple meditation to practice.
Color for healing
It has become a reality that many birthing people– some estimates report roughly 30 percent of women– experience a traumatic birth which can lead to childbirth-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Dr. Gill Thompson’s work “reveals how a traumatic birth experience can lead to women being drawn into a turmoil of devastating emotions that have long-term, negative repercussions on self-identity and relationships.”
Color can be used as a healing tool in this capacity.
Author Stephen Vazquez writes in COLOR: Its Therapeutic Power for Rapid Healing “Color is no longer just an outside stimulus applied to acquire an effect but instead a portal into exceptional healing and higher states of consciousness.”
One method called Visual Kinesthetic Dissociation uses the absence of color– replaying dreams and/or traumatic memories in black and white– to integrate emotional memories in a safe space as described here.
A study in Wistar rats suggests that offspring mood is affected by prenatal exposure to different colors.
The authors note, “ Colors black and red elevated the GABA levels in either serum or CSF, provoking symptoms of depression or mania while exposure to the colors green and blue during pregnancy decreased the GABA levels indicating the role of the colors black and red in depression and the color green or blue in positive mood behaviors.”
The authors go on to explain that the colors pregnant women are exposed to may affect their overall well being and stress levels, consequently affecting the development of their fetus and their behavior.
Perhaps the most profound way color plays into maternal child health is the way in which it presents on our skin; skin color affects every facet of a person’s life.
The recent anti-racist movement has brought to light the effects of systemic racism on Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) and more and more, the experiences of BIPOC are being illuminated. Still, long-standing practices that center white bodies dominate health care.
Nekisha Killings, MPH, IBCLC, a perinatal health professional and healthcare equity strategist writes, “In a world where the majority of breasts and nipples are some shade of brown, we cannot afford to treat white skin as the default in our practice.”
Killings continues, “As health professionals, we must remain mindful that the same breast and skin conditions may look very different on varying skin tones. For example, the redness associated with mastitis on Caucasian skin may not be present on darker skin tones.”
In her free webinar How Did I Miss That?: Breast Assessment and Non-White Skin Tones, she explores this phenomenon deeper.
Just as evidence-based lactation education and training is largely overlooked in medical education, general dermatological care for non-white people is just as sketchy.
In Decolonising dermatology: why black and brown skin need better treatment Neil Singh points out: “In recent years, a generation of race-conscious medical students who are used to choosing the exact skin colour of their emojis have raised concerns that the images through which they study are almost exclusively white. From the anatomy posters they hang above their beds, to the plastic mannequins they practise chest compressions upon, the default patient is almost always the same: a white-skinned man (only a woman when showing a relevant organ) with a hairless body and a neat side-parting of trimmed, mousy hair. This persists, despite the fact that white people are a global minority.”
Singh goes on to showcase a 2018 study which looked at more than 4,000 images in four major US medical textbooks and found that only 4.5 percent of images showed dark skin.
“This is a problem in every branch of medicine, as it reinforces whiteness as the norm, but it is most troubling in the teaching of dermatology, where every problem is set against the canvas of skin it arises from,” Singh explains.
Killings extends this challenge to lactation care and writes that “Normalizing brown breasts and nipples shouldn’t be a thing. Yet the texts that lactation professionals and other mammary specialists learn from utilize examples of primarily white skin. What a disservice we do to our patients with brown skin if we are not educated in how conditions present on them. We can change this. We will change this.”
Ellen Buchanan Weiss created Brown Skin Matters a collection of images showing how skin conditions can present differently in richly pigmented skin.
There’s an entire color spectrum to celebrate. It’s time we start seeing beyond black and white.