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Tot Ties: Breastfeeding support scarce in Black communities

By Rita Henley Jensen
On September 30, 2013

  • Baby friendly hospitals encourage breastfeeding right after birth as opposed to baby rooms.

Very few of the maternity wards that have won a seal of approval for providing breastfeeding support are located in communities with a significant population of African Americans, a Women's eNews analysis finds.

Breast milk is the most local of all foods and one that can have an outsized impact on the health of mothers and infants.
However, for many African-American parents, finding a maternity ward that supports the process immediately after birth can be extremely difficult.
That's the finding of Women's eNews' review of the U.S. locations of so-called baby-friendly hospitals, maternity hospitals that have passed a set of stringent standards established by the World Health Organization to assist brand-new parents to begin breastfeeding.
A Women's eNews analysis finds that 45 percent of U.S. baby-friendly hospitals are in cities and towns that have African-American populations of 3 percent or less. A full 83 percent of U.S. baby-friendly hospitals are in communities where the African-American portion of the population is 13 percent or less.
This geographic segregation of breastfeeding care and support may play a significant role in the lower breastfeeding rates among African-American mothers, which in turn means the mothers and the infants do not enjoy the health benefits of breastfeeding.
Moreover, despite their potential role in improving the nation's health, the baby-friendly designation is not widely understood, even in the highest public health circles, anecdotal evidence suggests.
At a recent conference on medical issues surrounding breastfeeding, one questioner asked Dr. Ana Pujol McGee, chief medical officer and executive vice president of the Joint Commission, the agency that sets standards for hospitals nationwide, about the lack of support for baby-friendly hospitals at the highest levels of the health system.
"Why is there no leadership from the commission on baby-friendly hospitals?" McGee was asked. "What's a baby-friendly hospital?" McGee replied. The attendees moaned in response. Later, in the hallway outside the meeting, Trish MacEnroe, executive director of Baby-Friendly USA, gave McGee a quick briefing.
One of the key baby-friendly rules-designed to limit the influence of infant formula makers-requires the hospital buy its own infant formula and not provide free formula to departing parents, including the free diaper bags provided at no cost by formula companies with a handy six-pack of formula inside.
Few baby-friendly hospitals can be found in big urban centers with large African-American communities and other low-income residents.
New York City, for example, home to more than 2 million African Americans - 9 percent of all African Americans nationwide -has only two baby-friendly hospitals, but none in the areas outside Manhattan where most African Americans live.
Detroit, now seeking to avoid its pension obligations in bankruptcy court, has a population of 700,000 that is 83 percent African American and has no certified baby-friendly hospitals. A suburb does though; the affluent Grosse Point, with a community that is 3 percent African American.
Demographic Disparities
The geography of Baby-Friendly hospitals concerns Green.
"In order to increase the number of Black babies who are breastfed, we must look specifically at the regional and racial demographics of the locations of baby-friendly hospitals and identify ways to increase the number of baby-friendly hospitals in areas that are highly populated with African-American families," she said.
The CDC reported this month an unprecedented decline in U.S. obesity rates, attributed in part to increased breastfeeding. The obesity rate for school-age, low-income children in the United States dropped by as much as 1 percent, in what the CDC hopes might be a trend. At the current time, 1-in-5 Black children and 1-in-6 Hispanic children are obese, leading to lifetimes of poor health.
Increasing breastfeeding is seen as a major strategy on the national level for improving the health of African-American mothers and their children. For women, breastfeeding reduces the risks for breast and ovarian cancer, as well as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
For infants, the health benefits are also significant. Babies who are breastfed have lower risks of ear and gastrointestinal infections, diabetes and obesity. Breast milk also contains antibodies that help babies fight off viruses, bacteria, allergies and asthma.
Rita Henley Jensen, a prize-winning investigative reporter, is founder and editor in chief of Women's eNews. 

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