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Race and the Culture of Breastfeeding [SURE Stories]

The following post was written by UHP student and SURE Award winner Laura Schwartz.

This year, I’ve been working on an original research project in the anthropology department on culture, race, and breastfeeding. I spent two years working as a work study employee at the Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington. While I worked there, I learned a lot about the culture surrounding breastfeeding – it’s a whole separate world that most people know nothing about. But it’s also a complicated world. To people who have never been parents, the idea that breastfeeding is more than just baby + breast = successful feeding might be completely foreign. Lactation support is a hugely important area that combines aspects of peer assistance with the health care industry. The Center, and other organizations like it, provides both supplies (such as breast pumps, nursing clothing, etc.) and appointments with lactation consultants, who are certified medical professionals who specialize in breastfeeding. Though it’s still off the radar of many, the field of lactation support is both crucial and growing.

Unfortunately, not all mothers have equal access to breastfeeding support, and that’s what my research is all about. Although breastfeeding rates in the US have been rising in recent years as more evidence comes out about breastmilk’s health benefits for babies as compared to formula, there are still many mothers who are not breastfeeding. In particular, African-American mothers’ breastfeeding rates are significantly low compared to other mothers in the US. I’ve spent the past six months asking mothers of all races at the Breastfeeding Center about their breastfeeding experiences in surveys and interviews. I’ve paid special attention to African-American mothers and whether the factors that lead to their decisions to breastfeed are different from those at play for mothers of other races. Within my (small) sample, it looks like there are some differences, particularly involved with the degree to which breastfeeding is normalized within different communities. There may also be differences in level of access to resources such as peer support. In addition, I’m examining insurance coverage of lactation support, which have recently been expanded under the Affordable Care Act. Finally, I frame all of these results within the wider culture of breastfeeding, which is extremely interesting to analyze from an anthropological perspective.

The UHP SURE Award was instrumental for me, even though everything I needed funding for was pretty unglamorous. With the UHP’s help, I was able to pay for photocopying of multi-page surveys to administer at the Breastfeeding Center. I also purchased a paper shredder to protect the privacy of my participants. Although these expenses seem minor, it would have been really tough for me to cover them myself, so the fact that the UHP Sure Award covered them for me was a huge deal as I was trying to get my study off the ground. I’m really proud of my original research, and I’m grateful to the UHP for all the help they’ve provided, both in the form of the SURE Award and otherwise!