Malena Amusa

— Kimberly Seals Allers is on vacation this week. —

Intensely aware of what health care advocates gently refer to as "health disparities," members of state coalitions meeting over the weekend confessed that they were struggling to find a best strategy to promote breastfeeding among African-American mothers.

Studies to date indicate that African American mothers are least likely to breastfeed–even though they are more at risk for breast cancer, obesity and high blood pressure. In addition, they are more likely to give birth early and breast milk can literally save the lives of preemies in a way formula does not.

As more than 300 breastfeeding activists–physicians, nurses, lactation consultants, and health activists– gathered in Arlington, Va. to expand the support for breastfeeding in hospitals, families, law and workplaces, the toughest question was how can we be more successful with African American mothers and mothers-to-be?

Part of my work at the conference was to discuss at a breakfast table how Women’s eNews is changing the media narrative about African maternal and infant health. I talked about Women’s eNews’ Black Maternal Health project and the value of shifting breastfeeding news focused on babies to the lives of the mothers, particularly black mothers.

Black moms are three-to six times more likely to die during pregnancy and during the post-partum weeks and thus they are the face of our country’s most acute maternal health problems. If the United States can mend poor health outcomes among black women and their infants, certainly the entire health care system will benefit.

But confronting the reality of black maternal health and breastfeeding at the conference is not so easy.

"Nooo," said Lorine Bizzell, a regional nutritionist with the United States Department of Agriculture, in Atlanta. That was her response when I asked for her input on the fact that that college-educated black women breastfeed less than low-income moms, teen moms, and moms with only 12 years of schooling.

"That’s hard to believe. Young black career women that I know are all nursing their children under a variety of challenging circumstances."

Laura Sinai is a North Carolina-based pediatrician. She works in a private practice outside Charlotte and a third of her clients are black. Talking to black mothers about breastfeeding has been difficult. "They just say, ‘You don’t know my life. I will not breastfeed.’"

Melissa Bartick, a physician with the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition, spearheads efforts for hospitals in the state to become Baby Friendly, an award given for prioritizing breastfeeding in maternity wards and backed by the World Health Organization.

After I asked Bartick how she’s targeting black mothers, she took a deep breath and said: "Yes, there are disparities. They do exist."

"Where do I find black women who want to be lactation consultants?" said Anna Uttar, the regional director of the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners in Falls Church, Virginia. "They are not coming out to get trained."

As the conference was coming to an end, I was starting to worry that the question of how to increase breastfeeding among black mothers was left hanging, like a great news story unpublished.

Right as I gathered my bags and headed out the conference hall, Napiera Loveless approached me.

She is co-founder of MamaTotoMatema, a Cincinnati agency urging breastfeeding among African-American families. We got to talking and laughing and sharing how we wished the conference had a dance party.

Loveless told me about how she reports to black women and activates their interest. Immediately I realized she should have been a keynote speaker; she was a guru of connecting ideas to messages, to challenges.

When talking to low-income black women, Loveless appeals to fashion. Many young black women like the bling, she said. The shiny things. The nice clothes. "I tell some mothers, ‘You know how you like your Dereon jeans and Gucci? Well breast milk is the name-brand jeans. Formula is the rip-off!’"

When talking to upper-income black women, Loveless said that family support systems may be lacking. Many families look to a high-earning black woman for financial and emotional support, so a lot is riding on her shoulders.

"I want to find out who their support system is," she said. "It might be her best friend or her co-worker. Can your co-worker help you on the job? Watch your work while you get a chance to pump?"

She said her strategy is gaining effect in Ohio.

As I left the Third National Conference of State/Territory/Tribal Breastfeeding Coalitions, my heart was warmed by Loveless, and the many leaders talking about black maternal health. My mind was racing.

There is always a way to get through.