In the initial installment of this series, we discussed the swinging pendulum of breastfeeding rates across the nation, as highlighted by the CDC’s most recent Breastfeeding Report Card. Among the data are outliers on both ends of the spectrum that warrant a closer look. Over the course of the next four installments, we’ll hear from lactation supporters who are in the trenches in four cities that are performing demonstrably different compared to the total US average and compared to the Healthy People 2020 benchmarks. We’ll discuss what is working to reach families in a unique way in each city, then at the end of the series, we’ll explore state and national efforts to increase accessibility to lactation support across the nation.
As we delve into the challenges and victories occurring in various areas, one factor that is hard to ignore is demographics. Do extenuating factors such as the mother’s sphere of influence or race or line of work directly impact breastfeeding? In short, absolutely! Income, age, education, race, and even language spoken impact healthcare experiences. This is consistent with breastfeeding and the types of support that are available in some communities as well. Breastfeeding success today requires a delicate balance of support and encouragement from many parts of a community; access to current, evidence-based information provided by relatable and available sources; and a work environment that supports pumping breaks and milk storage. The absence of any one of these factors can upset the entire system and almost certainly lead to failure.
Without question, the worst performing area in this country in terms of breastfeeding initiation and duration is the deep south. With consistent averages of 10-20 points below the US average of 81.1% of babies ever breastfed, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee together represent a cluster of states where unique challenges like those listed above create a dearth of support and a veritable first food desert. Take Mississippi, as an example. The Breastfeeding Report Card assessed Mississippi as simultaneously having the lowest breastfeeding rates AND the lowest number of lactation support providers available (both free and paid). Success and support go hand in hand.
In the face of the lowest ratings in the nation, there are some methods that seem to be making progress. Taking a closer look at what is working allows for some insight into some of the tangible challenges, and allows for some exploration of replicating that success in further parts of this region. Looking at Tennessee specifically, we find that breastfeeding initiation rates are trending 10 points behind the national average. Not surprisingly, the data also shows a consistent lag across all the measured categories, including the number of lactation supporters per 1,000 live births. Per the TN.GOV site, some obstacles that exist within the state to prevent mothers who have the intention to breastfeed from achieving success are:
- Lack of experience or understanding among family members of how best to support mothers and babies
- Not enough opportunities to communicate with other breastfeeding mothers
- Lack of up-to-date instruction and information from health care professionals
- Hospital practices that make it difficult to get started with successful breastfeeding
- Lack of accommodation to breastfeed or express milk at the workplace
How Does Race Factor In?
Sadly, breastfeeding trends are often illuminated when broken down by race. Using almost any breastfeeding metric in the US, White mothers outperform their Latina and Black counterparts. This is even more true in communities that are segregated, which often translates into differing levels and quality of care for those mothers in underserved groups. Latino breastfeeding rates lag White mothers, but the gap is narrowed or widened depending on their country of origin and level of assimilation. This layered and complicated phenomenon will be a focus when we turn our attention to the western region.
Black mothers lag behind the general US population, white mothers, and Latina mothers in every breastfeeding metric, from a national to a local level. This creates a dire situation in many majority-Black cities where ill newborns could be greatly helped by the benefit of mother’s milk, and Black mothers could also be helped by the benefits of breastfeeding. Efforts like Black Breastfeeding Week were created to overcome the obstacles that Black mothers face and to highlight breastfeeding within the Black community to normalize it. With a Black population of over 950,000, Tennessee has a need for year-round, focused breastfeeding support that gets to the heart of the Black community and its specific challenges.
BSTARS: Memphis, TN
To gain a first-hand perspective of the impacts this type of focused programming and initiative could have on the lives of mothers at the local level, I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Jada Wright Nichols, one of the founders of BSTARS in Memphis. She provided insights to better understand her program and the challenges that necessitated its inception. BSTARS’ mission is to support, protect, and promote Black women as they choose to breastfeed. Their work is impacting Black families in Memphis by combatting several of the listed obstacles to breastfeeding success in Tennessee. They are working to build a supportive community armed with confidence and solid information about breastfeeding. The template they have developed is tailor-made to fit the needs of mothers in Memphis, yet is flexible enough to plant elsewhere, and expect similar success.
Can you tell us about the inception of BSTARS?
Breastfeeding Sisters That Are Receiving Support (BSTARS) began in Memphis, TN out of the need to address the low breastfeeding rates amongst mothers of color in the city, while also highlighting those who do breastfeed, but often go unnoticed. Memphis has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates, highest infant mortality rates, highest breast cancer (and diabetes, and obesity) rates, highest poverty rates, and highest segregation rates in the country. We hope that helping to improve breastfeeding rates through consistent and accessible education and support, will also help to bring some of these other social and health issues into balance. We were created through the generous cooperation of the Shelby County Department of Health, Shelby County Breastfeeding Coalition, and Atlanta-based Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE).
How has the organization grown/evolved since it began?
We began with a hearty level of interest. At our first official meeting, we had certified lactation counselors, WIC peer counselors, lactation consultants, nurses, and physicians of color all eager to support pregnant and nursing moms.
At each meeting, we discuss a health topic and how it relates to breastfeeding, while also offering skilled breastfeeding support. We have had speakers from the community to address nutrition, exercise, postpartum mood disorders, smoking, birth control, safe sleeping, and family support. We have a solid group of attendees, but as the topics change, so does the make-up of each month's group, depending on the needs and interests of the families. We love being able to support the entire family. We regularly have partners, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers present to hear the same information as the mothers. We always have a lite meal, and an area for children to play or do homework. We are in our second year and growing strong, heading toward becoming our own 501c3 organization.
How is the community better off due to your presence?
Thanks to several of our signature events, Memphis has a greater awareness and appreciation of breastfeeding moms within the city. We have a community baby shower where we distribute pack-n-plays, car seats, nursing pillows, and pumps to 30 families. We have an annual walk along Historic Beale Street and throughout downtown Memphis to promote breastfeeding, health, and sisterhood. We have many community sponsors for this event, including Hooters - our favorite. Perhaps most impactful, we organized a one day breastfeeding symposium, which attracted healthcare providers from 4 states to gather to hear about current research and initiatives in breastfeeding. We were greeted by city officials excited about supporting breastfeeding, and we heard from some of the top voices in the field of lactation. We also have an intimate Facebook group, wherein moms of color ask questions and document, with pride, their breastfeeding journeys.
Could something like BSTARS be duplicated elsewhere?
Absolutely! We are already discussing its replication in a few communities and we are happy to help any others who are interested.
It’s a little too soon to see empirical data on the effectiveness of BSTARS. However, historically, the type of focused attention that BSTARS provides yields notable increases in mother confidence, breastfeeding initiation, and duration. Anecdotally, Memphis physicians have already noted that Black mothers seem to be inquiring more about breastfeeding, and breastfeeding for longer periods since BSTARS launched. There is great promise and potential at the local level for closing gaps in breastfeeding and BSTARS is one shining example of how it can be done. Next up, we’ll look at trends in the Western US and explore a program that is focused on groups that are still challenged, even amid high breastfeeding rates in their state.