Why Black Mothers Are Falling Behind in Breast-Feeding: Surgeon General David Satcher Sounds the Alarm

Article excerpt

ONE of the strangest and most puzzling of all health indicators is that Black women, who have nursed children for generations, are now at the bottom in breast-feeding rates among American mothers. According to the 1998 data compiled by the surgeon general's office, only 45 percent of Black mothers breast-feed their children immediately after birth, compared to 68 percent of Whites and 66 percent of Hispanics. Another steep drop occurs at 6 months after birth when only 19 percent of Black mothers continue breast-feeding, compared to 29 percent of mothers overall.

There are many theories on why Black mothers have fallen behind on the breast-feeding front. Some experts say the basic problem is class, and that many low-income women lacking extended maternity leaves are forced to return to work earlier, and therefore view breast-feeding as cumbersome. Others blame the association of breast-feeding with the slavery practice of wet-nursing.

The reasons for the disparity are complex, but health experts are taking proactive measures to reverse the trend. Surgeon General David Satcher has made it his personal mission to address the racial disparity in breast-feeding as well as to increase breast-feeding among women of all races. "Healthy People 2010" is the cornerstone of Satcher's health initiative for the nation during the next decade. It's designed to improve future lives by increased breast-feeding of babies.

"As we close the disparity gap [in breast-feeding], we will also be impacting `Healthy People 2010's' other goal of increasing the years and quality of healthy life," Dr. Satcher says. "We cannot afford to wait until a person is in [her] senior years to focus in on increasing quality and longevity. We have to begin our emphases as early in the life span as possible, which is why breast-feeding is so important."

The advantages of breast-feeding are clear, he says. "Breast-feeding protects infants from a wide array of infectious and noninfectious diseases, including diarrhea, respiratory tract infection, otitis media [ear infections], pneumonia, urinary infection ... and invasive bacterial infection," Dr. Satcher says. "When compared with formula-fed infants, breast-fed infants produce enhanced immune response to polio, tetanus, diphtheria, and haemophilus influenzae immunizations and to respiratory syncitial virus infection."

There are other benefits, too. Breast-fed children generally have lower rates of chronic childhood diseases, including cancer, asthma and diabetes.

Breast-feeding mothers also benefit from nursing. Studies have proven that mothers who breast-feed have less bleeding, return to their normal weight quicker and may have less risk of breast and ovarian cancer when compared to those who do not breast-feed.

A number of organizations, public and private, have launched national efforts to disseminate this information. The surgeon general's Blueprint for Action On Breast--Feeding contains guidelines, benefits, and other critical information about breast-feeding for mothers. The Baltimore-based African-American Breast-feeding Alliance, established in February 2000, educates Black mothers, fathers and families on breast-feeding through home and hospital visits.

"Right now, we're concerned that not enough [education] is going on," Dr. Satcher says, "so one of the things we do in the report is encourage physicians and other public health officials to become much more active in encouraging their patients to breast-feed."

Among the Black mothers taking the lead is Imani Barberousse of Chicago. Like most couples, Imani Barberousse, a former education director at the Boys & Girls Club and now a homemaker, and her husband, Dr. Lionel Barberousse, weighed the merits of breast milk and formula before having their first child more than nine years ago. The Barberousses say the overwhelming evidence supporting natural milk convinced them. …