Children who receive only breast milk for the first six months of life are healthier and do better in school. Their brains even develop better.
That’s why Titeyana Knight is determined to breastfeed her son. And even though her fiancé supports the decision, she says almost no one else in her community does.
“When I bring up the idea of breastfeeding to church members and friends and family, the response isn’t as welcoming as I want it to be or as I think it should be. But I believe that’s because breastfeeding is really a foreign language down here,” she explains.
By “here” Knight means Mississippi, where she was born and raised, and where breastfeeding rates are among the lowest in the nation, especially among African American women like her.
“Here” also is where a genuine revolution is underway to change that. Mississippi Communities and Hospitals Advancing Maternity Care Practices (MS CHAMPS) is reworking how hospitals engage with women at the time of birth, and empowering moms to give babies the best start in life. This program, part of the Boston Medical Center, is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
In partnership with Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi, Mississippi Perinatal Quality Collaborative, MS CHAMPS is assisting hospitals across the state to adopt the World Health Organization’s Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative and become designated Baby-Friendly through Baby-Friendly USA. Baby-Friendly hospitals ensure that all women are supported in their feeding choice, and provide the help needed for women to breastfeed successfully. The approach is a paradigm shift from standard practices that assume moms will use formula, reserving breastfeeding assistance for those who request it.
By providing every mom with supports in the first hours and days after delivery — the key time to establish breastfeeding — Baby-Friendly hospitals can significantly increase the likelihood that a mom will breastfeed in those critical first six months.
As a result of the initiative, breastfeeding initiation rates at Mississippi CHAMPS hospitals have already increased significantly — from 49 percent in 2015 to 65 percent in 2018. Eight hospitals across the state are certified as Baby-Friendly and about 95 percent of hospitals that deliver babies in Mississippi are on track to become certified as Baby-Friendly facilities.
“If African American women decide to breastfeed, we have to go against what our moms, our grandmas and everyone else in our community tells us to do.”
Once a mom leaves the hospital, she must incorporate breastfeeding into daily life.
“If African American women decide to breastfeed, we have to go against what our moms, our grandmas and everyone else in our community tells us to do. There’s a cultural break that our community needs to make,” explains Beneta Burt, president of the Mississippi Urban League (MUL), another Kellogg Foundation partner in Mississippi.
Based in Jackson, MUL is encouraging that break. The organization helps local businesses to create breastfeeding policies and private spaces onsite for moms to express milk. It also organizes outings for African American women to gain confidence in nursing in public while exposing community members to the idea. “If community members can see Black women breastfeeding, it will start to normalize the practice,” Burt says.
The Baby Café, a weekly gathering of African American pregnant women and moms, is one tool for transformation. MUL hosts the Jackson-based SIPPS Café, one of 13 across the state. Supported by the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the Mississippi Department of Health, Baby Cafés are designed to help African American women feel supported in their decision to nurse. One of Mississippi’s few African American certified lactation consultants is onsite to assist with breastfeeding, and most printed materials feature women and children of color.
Knight attends the Baby Café and calls it, “Inspiring. I am learning how I can really change my child’s life. … And I am learning to continue to be insistent on a lot of things because I am learning how important they can be for my child.”
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