Black mothers and breastfeeding disparities - Interview with Mistie Hughes CNM IBCLC

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

There is a disparity between black women and breastfeeding. According to March of Dimes in Ohio, about 74% of black women ever breastfeed compared to 76% of white women that breastfeed and 90% of Hispanics that ever breastfeed! Why is this? As a breastfeeding peer counselor, I was very aware of the low breastfeeding rates in black women compared to other breastfeeding adults. So I reached out to Mistie Hughes, a former co-worker who is the Breastfeeding Coordinator at Woman, Infants, and Children (W.I.C) and an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). I was featuring her for Black History month and interviewed her on why there are disparities in black women breastfeeding their babies!

Tell me about yourself.

I am a Certified Nurse Midwife who became an IBCLC because of the lack of diversity within the lactation consultant community. I am now working as a Breastfeeding Coordinator. I felt that it was important to have African American lactation consultants to increase breastfeeding rates within the African American community. This is important because of the abysmal infant mortality rates in the African American community, especially compared to other racial groups.

What’s Your favorite thing about your job?

Teaching (whether it be my staff, participants, or community members) about breastfeeding support and breastfeeding benefits.

What do you like to do for fun?

Relax and hang out with family and friends.

Who is your greatest inspiration?

My mother. She was a single parent of two girls. She sacrificed everything to provide for us. She’s one of my biggest cheerleaders!

There’s a disparity among black women and other races regarding breastfeeding; what are some of the reasons for those disparities?

There are several reasons for this. Here are just a few:

  • A lack of diversity within the lactation community.

  • A false perception that black women don’t breastfeed due to a lack of images of black women breastfeeding in the media.

  • Racism and implicit bias within the health care system are evidenced by the lack of breastfeeding promotion efforts towards black patients.

  • A lack of employer support disproportionately affects black women.

What are some common myths you hear from women who breastfeed? What are the facts behind those myths?

“If you breastfeed, your baby will become spoiled.” We know this is not true, and in fact, breastfeeding can promote bonding between a mother and child, which promotes emotional growth and trust for the baby.

What’s the correlation between breastfeeding and SIDS?

Breastfed infants have a lower risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Research has found that the risk of SIDS was reduced by 73% among exclusively breastfed infants. However, any amount of breastfeeding is protective against SIDS compared with no breastfeeding. This is just one of many breastfeeding benefits.

What are some things that hospital staff can do to support black women in breastfeeding?

Get rid of any preconceived notions that black women don’t breastfeed—training and education on racial equity and the disparity among breastfeeding and maternal/infant mortality. Hire more African American lactation consultants. Incorporate breastfeeding peer helpers into the hospital systems so that they can spread the word about breastfeeding benefits and breastfeeding tips.

What resources/organizations would you recommend for black women who are interested in breastfeeding?

  • Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association (BMBFA)

  • Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE)

  • Birthing Beautiful Communities

  • Mochamanual.com

Favorite quote?

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” Rita Mae Brown.

Thank you, Mistie! I hope this sheds light on some of the issues that black women face when breastfeeding their babies. My county (Cuyahoga County) has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the black communities despite having top medical care in our area, such as the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospital. Breastfeeding is essential in reducing infant mortality, along with proper education and attending prenatal appointments starting from early on in pregnancy. Breastfeeding is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it should empower us as women and as mothers. Breast milk is invaluable to our babies.

One of the other challenges black women may face is going back to work. It's a valid concern, but you can do it! Women are covered under The Fair Labor and Standards Act, letting women have ample time and space to breastfeed their babies.

Last but not least, don't be afraid to ask for help. Seek out a lactation consultant or counselor, a La Leche League Leader, or connect with one of the resources above. What are some things you may have heard as a black breastfeeding mother, and what tips would you give other moms? Let me know in the comments below!

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