Opinion: A Call for Breastfeeding Help in Black Community

In the video above, Tamara Hawkins, an African-American international board certified lactation consultant, describes her path to becoming one of the few black international-board-certified lactation consultants.

Increasing the number of African-American lactation consultants — and in turn, the prevalence of breastfeeding in the community — can help improve health outcomes for black women and their children, argues commentator Kimberly Seals Allers in the first of a two-part series for Women’s eNews.

Seals Allers, who has urged black women to overcome the stigma attached to breastfeeding, found only two international-board-certified lactation consultants in New York City, and a handful of others across the country.

African-Americans “prefer to be served by someone who looks like them and understands their cultural nuances,” Seals Allers asserts, citing marketing studies. Sakia’Lynn Johnson, one of two African-American board certificated lactation consultants in Florida, put the studies’ results into layman’s terms: “The proverbial ‘Sally’ cannot talk to the proverbial ‘Shaniqua.'”

And Seals Allers recalls her own experience:

I discovered something about myself when I was breastfeeding my daughter. I did not really want a white woman to see my breasts. Maybe because of my overly dark areola and large nipples (I had to get a special pump), which seemed exotic and very National Geographic in my own mind. And I certainly didn’t want to tell a white woman some of the comments of my family members, which were really at the root of my insecurities around breastfeeding but may have sounded “ignorant” to anyone else not familiar with our cultural history.

The lack of diversity in the industry is evident from the membership of the International Lactation Consultants Association, says Seals Allers, and she urges the group to do more to tackle the problem. Cathy Carothers, the outgoing president of the organization and the incoming chair of the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee acknowledged the disparity, and admitted, “we really don’t have much in place.”

Carothers said this year’s board meeting agenda included talking about the association’s role to fulfill point No. 11 in the Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Breastfeeding, which specifically involves “creating opportunities to prepare and train more IBCLCs from racial and ethnic minority groups that are currently not well represented in this profession.”

But Carothers couldn’t answer why action steps weren’t created at last year’s annual meeting given that the Call to Action was released with much momentum in January of 2011 and their meeting was in July and since their lack of black and brown membership spans even longer.

Seals Allers calls on the International Lactation Consultants Association to help promote breastfeeding in the black community.

The leadership of the lactation consultants association needs to actively seek and pursue new ways to encourage diversity–perhaps recruiting peer counselors from the federal Women Infants and Children nutrition program–and find other black lactation consultants who aspire to certified status. The International Lactation Consultants Association needs to own up to its diversity challenge and take it on. Center stage.

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