25 Aug

Black Breastfeeding Week 2020 – thoughts from a mum, midwife and BfN volunteer

Andrea is a trained BfN Helper volunteer based in Wolverhampton. She is a mum of three (now grown up!) children. She worked as an NHS nurse and midwife for 18 years and now works as a Clinical Reflexologist and runs her own holistic therapy business. In this personal account, she shares some of her own views on Black Breastfeeding week, and experiences both as a mum and as a midwife.

I must be honest when I saw the title Black Breastfeeding week. I thought ‘Interesting! Why would we need a separate week looking at Black breastfeeding? Isn’t all breastfeeding the same? Lol!’.  I then had a look at some of the links and listened to a talk by Ruth Dennison on YouTube.
I must admit my personal experience of breastfeeding with regards to my family and community has been a very positive one. I come from a family of nine children, two boys and seven girls. I am the baby of the bunch.
I watched all my sisters breastfeeding, and skin to skin was always important. My great Auntie would come and do the first bath for the newborn following by her famous stretch massage with olive oil. The baby would sleep for half the day after that.
Preparing a nursery for the baby was unheard of because baby was going to stay in the room with parent/s until he/she could sleep in a bed.
Co-sleeping was also a common thing, although this would only tend to be for the convenience of breastfeeding, or if the child was unwell and wouldn’t settle unless close to their mother.
One true thing about the Black community is they do like to feed! The thought of someone going hungry, or not getting enough nourishment does not go down well.
This is where I think the point Ruth makes in her talk suggesting that black people having the tendency to mix feed comes into play. I believe formula milk was sold to us as ‘good for your baby’. And we still knew deep down that breast was also good, so we would think ‘well why not do a bit of both!’
When I had my children, even though I was only 19 when I had my son, I knew I was going to breastfeed. Establishing breastfeeding was not all plain sailing though! I found my mother and sisters were very encouraging, although having said that, if I was given any advice from healthcare professionals that may well have gone against what we had culturally inherited from our African ancestors, I was encouraged to listen to what the healthcare professionals told me.
For example, I was told to give my baby some formula as he was described as ‘a hungry baby’. I know now that it was probably down to just needing a slight adjustment to the latch. Because of this I did mix feed my son and stopped breastfeeding after 6 months.
Then when I had my twin daughters at the age of 28, and now a qualified Nurse. I was determined they would have no formula. This time I was confronted with a lot of pressure from healthcare professionals to give some formula. I was told “you can’t feed twins”, “they are small they need something more than breast milk” “they are losing weight you need to top them up”.
This time though, I was a little older, a little wiser and was even confident enough to reassure my mother when she thought maybe I should listen to the healthcare professionals. Don’t get me wrong – I would never encourage a women not to listen to the healthcare professionals, as I am one myself. But we do know at times we can give out conflicting advice, therefore I always encourage women to seek evidence based research for themselves enabling them to make informed decisions. 
I breastfed my twin daughters exclusively for 6 months until I introduced other foods, whilst continuing with breastfeeding up until 18 months old.
During my time as a midwife I was always an advocate for breastfeeding if this was the women’s choice and I would try to support her and the rest of the family to the best of my ability.
With regards to supporting women from the Black community, I found because I had a full understanding of the cultural background, it would help me to better understand the woman’s needs.
In relation to the recent Black Lives Matter campaign that has been highlighted after the unfortunate death of George Floyd, I would like to share with you two personal experiences that may help to explain some of the inequalities in health related to Black people.
When my twins were born in 1990, a few days after their birth I was approached by a white midwife who had two little injections all drawn up and ready to go! When I asked what it was for she said she was going to give my babies a BCG injection.
She went on to explain the reason I was being offered this was because (in her words) ‘Asian people come to England and they live all together under one roof, they bring TB with them from India and that’s why we offer it to all black and Asian babies’.
Her reply made no sense to me. I was not Asian and I did not live in their houses with them. I lived in a community that consisted of Black, White, and Asian people, yet the injection was not being offered to white babies.
I decided I would try to investigate the matter further by asking other midwives and a doctor why it was so important for my babies to have this injection so soon after their birth. I understood the point being made with regards to some Asian communities, but I did not come under that category.
I could not get an answer that I was satisfied with. I decided not to give my babies the injection at that stage and they proceeded to have the injection in year 6 of school alongside the majority of children.
The moral of this story is that sometimes people of colour are just grouped together without any real consideration or thought. We have white and then BAME!
Secondly, when I worked as a midwife on the ward in the mid 1990’s we were provided with little bottles of ready-made formula milk that mothers could help themselves to whilst they were inpatients. Theses bottles of milk were supplied in such vast amounts that quite often they would go past their expiry date before they could be used.
Being a person that does not like waste I decided to investigate what happens to all this out of date formula milk. My discovery was shocking. It was being sent to places in Africa and given to nursing moms there!
What was even more shocking is that a lot of my colleagues did not see a problem with this, with some suggesting ‘well it’s better than nothing! Because they don’t have much food do they?’
We all know there are deeper conversations to be had surroundings this but I think I have ranted enough. With that said I’m still a little unsure about the title ‘black breastfeeding’.
Breastfeeding has been sold to us all (whatever colour we are) as something that is unnatural, inconvenient, embarrassing and difficult. I believe our biggest challenge is a reconditioning of our minds. Some of the challenges may well differ depending on our cultural backgrounds, but we all face similar challenges when it comes to breastfeeding our babies, irrespective of our colour.
We all have a common interest to make this a better world with less unnecessary discrimination and prejudices that just hold us back. 
It’s worth noting that this was some time ago and I know things have changed on maternity units now but it does demonstrate the attitudes that people had then and others have grown up with.

Thank you for sharing your story and thoughts with us Andrea.