The recent Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. originated with a focus on police brutality, but important conversations surrounding systemic racism in healthcare have also been circulating in our media. Police brutality has proved to be a threat to black pregnant people and breastfeeding parents as police respond to Black Lives Matter protests with riot control weapons. La Leche League’s research and suggestions for breastfeeding following exposure to tear gas has been helpful during the 2019 Hong Kong protests in addition to Black Lives Matter protests. The suggestion is to wait an hour after decontamination to nurse again. It’s unfortunate that breastfeeding parents at protests are put in this situation. As doula Gina Martínez states, “there is no reason that peaceful protesters should ever be attacked with chemicals or excessive force. Never mind a pregnant or breast-feeding person.”

Outside of times of protest, significant disparities persist in health outcomes as well. Women of color are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, as reported by the CDC’s 2019 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). This comparative study published in the American Journal of Public Health concludes that black women are more likely to die in childbirth than women of any other race, and experience the lowest breastfeeding initiation rates

Recognizing and becoming educated on health disparities is the first step to improving the situation for black mothers and their children. The National Partnership for Women & Families reports some of the key factors that have a significant impact on black women’s maternal health are as follows:

  • Access to adequate health insurance is often unavailable
  • Employers often don’t provide paid family or medical leave
  • There is a lack of diversity amongst healthcare providers
  • Black women are disproportionately affected by pregnancy discrimination
  • Individual providers and hospital systems are often not held accountable if they fail to provide unbiased, high-quality, evidence-based care

Racial disparities are also apparent in the education of nursing and medical students, which can be a strong determinant of the biased treatment black patients often receive. Simulation is the gold-standard in medical education, yet there is a considerable lack of diversity in simulators in regards to age, sex, and race. According to Lack of Diversity in Simulation Technology: An Educational Limitation?, the consequences are “limitations to educators’ abilities to represent the full array of patients, conditions, and scenarios encountered in medicine and training.”  

COVID-19’s impact on black maternal health and breastfeeding must also be taken into consideration as organizations and communities move forward with solutions. In an interview with the Badass Breastfeeding Podcast, speaker, author, activist, and co-founder of Black Breastfeeding Week Kimberly Seals Allers comments, “…the pandemic is only exacerbating [racism and bias in health outcomes] that already exist.” Kimberly goes on to discuss how the pandemic has decreased breastfeeding support for black women in hospitals and toward advocacy groups.

 

Resources & Ways Healthcare Providers can Improve Black Women’s Maternal Health

Following the acknowledgement of these maternal health disparities, it’s up to nurses, doctors, medical students, lactation consultants, doulas, and all people working in the field to take action to prevent these issues in the future. There are numerous supportive groups, organizations, and resources for black maternal health and breastfeeding. A few ways healthcare providers can show their support is to share these resources on social media, with their coworkers and patients, and donate wherever possible.