Since February, the country has experienced a shortage in infant formula prompted by the FDA shut down a Michigan plant due to a recall of three brands of powdered formula. Families across the country have struggled to find formula in their local stores as the federal government desperately tries to import stock from overseas. And while some have questioned why these struggling mothers just don’t breastfeed their babies, they are overlooking many of the structural barriers that make it more difficult for many mothers of color to do so.
It’s true that breastfeeding has tremendous benefits for mothers and babies. As the CDC notes, it’s the best source of nutrition because mother’s milk changes to meet a baby’s nutritional needs as they grow. It also allows mothers to share antibodies with their babies that protect them from various illnesses. Breastfeeding can also help reduce a mother’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. But Black mothers are still less likely to breastfeed their babies than any other racial group.
The CDC reports that just over 75 percent of Black infants are ever breastfed compared with 85 percent of whites. As the months go on, the numbers go down significantly. According to the CDC, 20 percent of Black women breastfeed exclusively through the first six months, compared to 29 percent of white women. And when a mother doesn’t breastfeed, her milk supply quickly begins to decrease, leaving her to depend on formula.
Much of this disparity is due to a lack of support from employers and the country’s healthcare system, which overwhelmingly pushes Black mothers to formula. According to data, most Black mothers return to work just eight weeks after they give birth, which is earlier than other racial groups. And when they return, they’re less likely to receive the support they need from their employers, including break time and a private space to nurse.
Racism in healthcare system causes additional challenges for mothers of color. For example, in states such as Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia that have not decided to expand Medicaid, access to lactation consulting and breast pumps are not available. And hospitals in neighborhoods with a higher concentration of Black people are 15 percent less likely to provide lactation support to new mothers and instead pushes them towards formula feeding.
As Andrea Freeman, author of the book “Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race and Injustice points out, the system that has made so many Black mothers dependent on infant formula is now leaving them stranded in a time of crisis. “Nobody’s taking responsibility for the fact that they’ve steered families of color toward formula for so many years and made people rely on it and taken away choice. And then when it falls apart, there’s not really any recognition or accountability.”