The Need To Feed: The Ultimate Guide To Breastfeeding For Black Women
Photographed by Ragan Henderson

Black women breastfeeding their babies shouldn’t be a radical idea. But in America—where, according to a 2015 study from Breastfeeding Medicine, a systemic lack of health care access has left us with the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation and continuation—it seems to be. That’s why Black Breastfeeding Week, August 25–31, and August being declared National Breastfeeding Month are both so significant. Each event is a call for support, education and action, in our community and our country. They’re also great chances for Black women wanting to breastfeed to find the information they need about nursing. To do our part, we asked a few knowledgeable folks to share their advice on all things breastfeeding—from the benefits of engaging a lactation consultant to tips on what might actually help increase milk supply.  

Breastfeeding Is Not Just the Mother’s Job 

Many birthing women believe they are solely responsible for breastfeeding—which means if the experience doesn’t meet their expectations, it must be their problem to solve. Before we give Black moms advice, it’s important to establish that the weight of nursing shouldn’t fall solely on their shoulders. “Your focus is on your baby, it’s on you and there’s so much stress,” says Kiddada Green, executive director of the Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association (BMBFA) and cofounder of Black Breastfeeding Week. “Why are we making mamas look so hard to get support?”  

She points to the need for “clinical-community integration” that includes help for Black women from Black women, beginning in the early stages of pregnancy. “If you’re birthing in the hospital, you’re going to your prenatal visits,” she says. “There are opportunities in those visits to pass along resources. And I don’t mean just passing out a piece of paper or information, but warm handoffs. The system has to work for Black women, and there has to be a continuum of care.” 

As Green and her peers push for structural change, she encourages Black families to view breastfeeding as a communal activity in which everyone plays a role. “The work is centered in a love for Black people and trying to reclaim so many traditions that were struck from us,” she notes. “Things like the family structure and how Black folks commune, which is often around food. Breastfeeding is not that different from the way that we commune together.” 

The Need To Feed: The Ultimate Guide To Breastfeeding For Black Women
Courtesy of Ashley Wright

The Benefit of Community  

When Demetria Martin had her son, in 2018, she was one of the first in her friend group to become a mom. “I was like, ‘I am breastfeeding. We’re making this happen,’” she says. “I had to figure out a lot of things on my own.”  

While she received some support from hospital aides, none of them looked like her. She watched YouTube videos, joined Facebook mom groups and asked mothers she knew at work about their own journey. Then, during the pandemic, when more of her friends started having kids and were feeling isolated, she became a certified lactation counselor and founded the lactation practice The Milk Buds. “What’s critical, in addition to knowing who’s in your life, is knowing what professionals to get support from,” she says. “Because not everything your friends, moms, aunts or anyone else tells you is going to be advice that’s actually helpful.”  

Ashley Wright, a single mom, agrees. When she had her first child, in 2013, she says the Black breastfeeding movement as we know it “did not exist. It was not even a hashtag. I remember thinking, I just want to educate my family about it.” That became a viral breastfeeding photo shoot, which then made her the face of the online community known as Ms. Wrights Way. 

“Breastfeeding is going to look different for everyone,” she says. “But I’m a very big advocate of prenatal breastfeeding classes. When you have the information, you’re empowered.” 

However you choose to build your supportive community, find one early. Whether it’s in the form of a doula, a lactation counselor or a local La Leche League group, “there are benefits to seeing others breastfeeding,” Martin says. “People who have seen others who they can mirror, are more successful—and they’re also more likely to have a longer breastfeeding journey.”  

Pumping Is Breastfeeding  

When we picture breastfeeding, we imagine a nurturing mother with her baby serenely suckling at her chest. Dianna Dixon, D.P.A. and certified lactation counselor, wants that image expanded to include pumping, too.  

“Everyone wants to nurse their babies,” she says. “When you first give birth, that’s what we are set up to do.”  In her case, however, after an emergency C-section, Dixon was separated from her son. Issued a hospital-grade breast pump, she was left to figure the rest out on her own. Her milk took five days to come in. Later, she discovered that her son was tongue-tied and lip-tied—conditions that make nursing more difficult.  

The situation inspired Dixon to found her global lactation private practice, Pump with Purpose. “Everyone thinks breastfeeding, either by nursing or pumping, comes naturally, and it doesn’t,” she says. “Pumping is a way to help protect supply. Either someone is trying to get the baby back to the breast or someone has decided nursing is not for them, or maybe they choose it because there’s a new era of women choosing to pump.” One reason for this is that in the U.S., paid maternity leave isn’t guaranteed—which makes pumping an attractive option for those who want to provide breast milk without having a baby latch as they return to work. Beyond that instance, though, Dixon is pro-pumping, having fed her newborn and toddler with pumped breast milk for three years.  

To make pumping the “viable, sustainable and long-term breastfeeding solution” it can be, you first need to make sure your pump works for you. “You need to pick a pump that’s gentle yet effective, and one that’s customizable, because you need to have the right flange size,” she explains. “It needs to fit your body.”  

Even more than being an advocate for pumping, Dixon says she’s an advocate for families. “We need to meet families where they are, and not try to put a label of ‘If you’re not doing this, it’s not good, or if you’re doing this, it is good,’” she says. 

The Need To Feed: The Ultimate Guide To Breastfeeding For Black Women
Courtesy of Courtney Danielle Bryant

Managing Guilt If You Have to Supplement 

Courtney Danielle Bryant always knew she wanted to be a mom, and she always knew she wanted to breastfeed. “I can remember looking at photos of my mom breastfeeding me and my brother,” she says. “I just thought that was the default.” 

It wasn’t until her daughter, born in 2021 with a tongue-tie, started losing weight that she realized it wouldn’t be that easy. “I cried because I felt like a failure,” she recalls. “At the time I didn’t know she had a tongue-tie. I thought it was me. But because she had the tongue-tie, she wasn’t drawing out the milk.” She began feeding her daughter breast milk with a spoon and a dropper, but still the baby was losing weight—so the doctor suggested supplementing.  

The first formula she tried, her daughter threw up. Dissatisfied, Bryant and her husband considered surgery. “We really had to sit back and decide, ‘Okay, how important is getting this tongue-tie revised? And are we doing it because I want to breastfeed?’” she remembers. “Because we know that she just needs to be fed. She doesn’t need to be fed at the breast. I can pump and bottle-feed her. That’s still breastfeeding.” 

Tongue-ties, in which a small band of tissue under the baby’s tongue restricts its movement, often improve as a child gets older. Surgery can also be an option. Ultimately, Bryant and her husband decided on the quick procedure to reverse their daughter’s condition, allowing her to breastfeed without the introduction of formula. But not every family is as lucky. Even though breast milk is tailored to your baby’s nutritional needs, it can sometimes be difficult to produce—more so for Black mothers who lack lactation support. If you need to supplement, or your breastfeeding journey just isn’t going as planned, that’s okay. “There isn’t one size that fits all, especially in regard to milk production,” says Ifeyinwa Asiodu, Ph.D., R.N., IBCLC. “We need to have grace for the fact that each lactation journey is a unique experience.” 

The Need To Feed: The Ultimate Guide To Breastfeeding For Black Women
Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

Pump It Up 

Ifeyinwa Asiodu, associate professor in the Department of Family Health Care Nursing at the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing, shares ways for mothers to increase their breast milk supply 

Understand your body. 

“The alveoli cells and clusters in the breast are where the milk is being produced,” says Asiodu, noting that it goes through the milk ducts and is expressed through the nipple. “The nipple is the actual delivery mechanism, so the baby doesn’t need to be latched directly onto it. You want the baby to have as much of the surrounding breast tissue in their mouth as possible for a deep latch.”  

Eat well and often.  

“When you’re providing milk for your infant, whether you’re breastfeeding, chest feeding or pumping, you’re burning extra calories,” Asiodu says. “So making sure that you’re eating nutritiously and taking in more calories than you were before is really important.”   

Avoid comparisons. 

Many new mothers look to social media to gauge their breastfeeding success, which can cause feelings of inadequacy and stress, which in turn can affect milk production. “We’ve been conditioned to think If I’m not able to produce a bottle’s worth of milk, I’m not really producing anything,” says Asiodu. “Your baby will let you know through wet diapers, dirty diapers and being satisfied whether what you’re producing is enough.”