The ugliest lactivist lie: black women are killing their own babies by not breastfeeding

Doctor consoling upset woman

Lactivism has begun to seem like an endless parade of lies:

Breastfeeding saves lives of term babies — a lie!

Breastfeeding within the first hour of birth saves lives — a lie!

Insufficient breastmilk is rare — a lie!

Every baby needs nothing more than colostrum for several days — a lie!

But in my view, there’s no lie more cruel or more ugly than the one peddled by Kimberly Seals Allers on the Huffington Post — Presenting Breastfeeding As A Choice Is Contributing To Black Infant Deaths — the lie that black women are responsible for their deaths of their own children.

Breastfeeding would do NOTHING to prevent most of the deadly risks that black infants face.

Seals Allers writes:

Studies show that even college-educated black women disproportionately give birth to babies who die during infancy from complications related to birth size and weight. Nationally, black babies die at more than twice the rate of white babies. And some areas of the country have it worse than others; in prosperous San Francisco, black infants die at a rate of 9.6 percent compared to a rate of 2.1 percent for white infants.

It’s true. Black women are more likely to end pregnancy with heartache and empty arms than any other ethnic group. Whose fault is that? Seals Allers choose to blame the victims:

For more than 40 years, stark racial disparities have existed between white and black breastfeeding rates, particularly when you look at women who exclusively breastfeed for six months and who exclusively breastfeed for 12 months (the gold standard of infant nutrition as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics). According to recent CDC data, only 17 percent of black infants were still breastfeeding at 12 months, whereas nearly double the rate of white infants met that standard.

If it weren’t ugly enough to blame black mothers for their own losses, the reasoning is uglier still. Seals Allers appears to believe that black women are uniquely ignorant and gullible.

National discourse often frames breastfeeding as a lifestyle choice instead of a public health matter ― more akin to choosing a cloth diaper as opposed to the preventative medicine it provides…

How dare anyone treat women like adults and let them choose how they wish to use their own bodies? How dare anyone imagine that black women are as capable of making responsible choices as white women?

Don’t get me wrong: Kimberly Seals Allers is neither anti-feminist or racist.

She — like nearly everyone who seeks to restrict women’s autonomy — believes she is on the side of the angels. She — like those who seek to restrict reproductive freedom — believes that “choice” is anathema because there is only one right choice. She — like those who propose arduous hurdles for termination of pregnancy or who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control because it offends their religious values — are convinced there is no limit to the rights that can be trampled because the ends justify the means.

That doesn’t change the fact that blaming black women for killing their own babies by not breastfeeding is both anti-feminist and racist — and factually false.

Why do black babies die? According to the Office of Minority Health:

The leading cause of black infant death are prematurity, congenital anomalies, maternal complications of pregnancy and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

How would breastfeeding reduce black infant death? It’s easier to list what it WOULDN’T do than what it would.

Breastfeeding would NOT reduce the incidence of prematurity.
Breastfeeding has NO impact on congenital anomalies.
Breastfeeding has NO impact on maternal complications of pregnancy

So breastfeeding would do NOTHING to prevent most of the deadly risks that black infants face.

How could breastfeeding reduce black infant mortality? Breastfeeding reduces the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a deadly complication of extreme prematurity, and breastfeeding is associated with a reduction in the risk of SIDS.

But there are important caveats to these benefits:

1. Deaths from NEC represent only a small fraction of deaths from prematurity. Most premature babies die from respiratory complications and brain hemorrhages. There’s no evidence that breastfeeding has any impact on those causes.

2. Breastfeeding does not prevent NEC; it merely reduces the incidence.

3. The leading risk factor for SIDS deaths is bed sharing, not failure to breastfeed. Moreover, reduction of SIDS deaths that could be accomplished by increasing breastfeeding rates could equally be accomplished by promoting pacifier use.

What could save the lives of MORE black babies than breastfeeding?

Reducing prematurity.
Reducing maternal complications of pregnancy.
Promoting early prenatal care.
Making sure black women and their babies have access to high risk care.
Reducing bed sharing.

The bottom line is that breastfeeding could potentially prevent only a small fraction of black infant deaths. Even if all black women breastfed, their babies would still continue to die at a much higher rate than white babies.

That makes Seals Allers implication that black mothers who formula feed are responsible for their own bereavement about as ugly an insinuation as one could make.

  • MaineJen

    Absolutely heartless. To suggest that breastfeeding would make any difference here is ludicrous.

  • anh

    I’m horrified by this racist drivel. I am shocked Huffpo published this.

    • fiftyfifty1

      I’m not at all shocked. Huffpo is super into woo, especially natural parenting woo. Combine that with an African American delivering the message wrapped up in “fighting structural racism” rhetoric and you’ve got a perfect stereotypical Huffpo post.

  • namaste

    O/T, but I was served up the most fabulously wootastic Word Salad by the blog of David Avocado (Yes, really) Wolfe. Should anyone be inclined, its very entertaining.

  • I am not a woman of color, but am busy being fed misinformation at my first prenatal visit for Baby 4: “Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large…Breast milk is…the perfect food for the newborn….” quoted from WHO.

    Then there’s more crap about how breastmilk is the perfect infant food (“Is better than any other food for nutrition and disease prevention”), has immune system benefits, increases baby’s IQ, is more environmentally friendly than formula, and is free whereas formula costs $2,000 per year. Bleah.

    • space_upstairs

      First prenatal visit? Like, at 1-1.5 months pregnant, where they can only see on the ultrasound where the embryo implanted and it has maybe a 70% chance of making it to birth? That’s awfully early to be harping on about feeding, I’d think. My own OB/GYN hasn’t even brought up that issue yet in the first 3 visits. (But then, I moved out of the US.)

      • Yep. Actually, I haven’t even got an ultrasound yet–could be ectopic for all I know (obviously, I hope not). It’s pretty ridiculous that they’re starting the breastfeeding indoctrination this early.

        • space_upstairs

          Wow. My OB/GYN had given me an ultrasound order at my last visit between birth control removal and conception, and so I cashed it in as soon as the pee stick showed the double line to check whether my pregnancy was ectopic. That was at 5 weeks, and all was fine. So I went back to the doctor with the ultrasound, and he was nowhere near discussing feeding yet: he said come back in a few weeks with a heartbeat and then we’ll do your blood work, but in the meantime, keep taking that folic acid like I told you to when you were talking about going off birth control. I like that he seems to be focused on the pregnancy itself and what to do to make that go well, since it’s still going to be a while before the baby can eat anything but what my bloodstream sends its way.

          • Kelly

            My OB has never talked to me about feeding my baby except when I needed medicine. Is that even within their scope of care?

    • Madtowngirl

      16 weeks here, and getting the same garbage. Thankfully it’s not coming from my OB, but my office feeds directly into a BFHI hospital, so the rhetoric is everywhere. Thankfully, I have been reassured that my OB will “get it” and respect my wishes to put “no LCs” in my care plan.

    • Kelly

      Unless the baby has health issues that you have to feed them prescription formula, formula is not that expensive. For a baby with no health issues or allergies, I spent about $500 for the whole year. I hate when they inflate the cost of formula to make it sound out like you need a loan to feed children.

      • ffmama

        A year of formula feeding my baby was HALF of what my breastfeeding friend paid in three MONTHS between lactation consultants, all that milk production tea and cookies and woo, lanolin, breastpads, etc. She is now pregnant with #2 and will be formula feeding only.

        • Kelly

          Breastfeeding is only cheap if you don’t have issues and you don’t count your time as well. I know I spent more on bags, pump, pump accessories, and a freezer pumping than we did formula feeding my third. It cost less with the second baby since we had most of the stuff, but still, I quit after four months because the time I put into it was awful. Formula feeding my third was so easy. We spent $30 on bottles and nipples and about $40-50 a month on formula. We use Sam’s club formula and now there are sometimes coupons for it too.

    • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

      Umm did they miss where breastmilk usually lacks sufficient Vitamin D and Iron….https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4573441/

      ‘Previous studies have reported a high prevalence of Vitamin D deficiency (VDD) in breastfed infants8,9,10), and AAP recommended that all breastfed infants routinely should receive an oral supplement of vitamin D, 400 IU per day, beginning at hospital discharge to maintain an adequate serum vitamin D concentration11).

      A concurrent deficit of micronutrients, including iron and vitamin D, in breastfed infants may result in a wide spectrum of adverse effects on growth, development and performance12)”

      • kilda

        I know, it always amazes me how they overlook that when proclaiming breast milk to be God’s Perfect Food. It’s not like it’s missing something minor or obscure – it’s frigging iron and vitamin D. But hey, it has stem cells and antibodies that won’t survive the baby’s stomach juices, so I guess that’s much more important.

  • Sarah

    As I’ve said before, whatever the problem is, it will definitely be best addressed by berating black and brown women to use their bodies in the approved manner. Which is fortunate, because if the impact of structural racism were properly acknowledged, something might actually have to be done about it. Much easier this way!

    • fiftyfifty1

      And Seals Allers gives lip service to structural racism…without ever for 1 minute losing sight of the “using their bodies in the approved manner” part.
      It’s gotten bad enough that I’ve decided that invoking structural racism is meaningless. It seems to me it is used as often to bolster retrograde/conservative opinions as the opposite. But I’m cynical.

      • Sarah

        I don’t know that you are. And if she’s giving this level of emphasis to something that is relatively unimportant when explaining the massive disparity, she’s not according sufficient meaning to the major factors.

      • Madtowngirl

        I agree, I don’t think you’re being cynical. I worked in an urban (read: black majority) school for years, and any time you would point out to the white administration, and some teachers, that there were structural racism issues in our school, they’d turn a blind eye and defend it. I used to wonder why our parents and black employees stopped speaking up. By the end of my time there, I knew why. It was an exercise in futility.

        • fiftyfifty1

          Although in this case I feel it is more like “Structural racism, blah blah,blah, see now I’ve proven my bonafides, so even if I do something that hurts black people you can’t criticize me because I must be so woke.”

  • fiftyfifty1

    “Black infants die at a rate of 9.6 percent…”
    Sheesh, she can’t even calculate a simple percentage. But she’s the expert? It’s supposed to be 0.96%.

    • FormerPhysicist

      I think I’d be aware if it was one in ten black infants, and more than one in fifty white. I do know of a few stillbirths and other infant deaths, but it doesn’t seem like even one in fifty.