All parents deserve a safe, loving space to forge strong bonds with their newborns, access to critical resources and services, and a community to support their journey as new caretakers. Yet, research continues to highlight the deep inequities that historically under served communities – especially our Black, Brown, AI/AN, and Pacific Islander caregivers and children – have endured and resiliently fought through for generations.
Researchers analyzing data from the National Immunization Survey-Child found that 83% of U.S. mothers breastfed their babies in 2015. While this data reflects a high national level of breastfeeding, deep racial inequities are revealed when this population is filtered by race. Researchers found that 85% of white women breastfeed their babies compared to only 69% of black women – a stark 16% difference.
“At the root of what’s happening to black women and their birth outcomes, as well as their disparities with breastfeeding, is an issue about racism and bias.”Kimberly Seals Allers
While the decision to breastfeed or not is wholly personal to each caregiver, its benefits are generally held in high regard. Breastfeeding provides countless nutritional benefits, promotes sensory and cognitive development, and nurtures strong familial bonds between mothers, caretakers and their baby (WHO). So, why aren’t these benefits equitably reaching all communities? In a simplified summary: beyond a single statistic lies deeply entrenched systems that reveal the intersections between race, health, culture, and class in the U.S.
Kimberly Seals Allers, a maternal and infant health strategist, explains, “at the root of what’s happening to black women and their birth outcomes, as well as their disparities with breastfeeding, is an issue about racism and bias.”
Supporting Strong Foundations
Open Arms Perinatal Services provides critical, community-based support for new mothers through their pregnancy, baby’s birth, and first year, all while prioritizing African American/ Black, American Indian/ Alaska Native and Pacific Islander communities. With free virtual, community-based lactation support, mothers are culturally matched up with a Lactation Support Peer Counselor who will help set them up for success.
Collaboration is integral to Open Arms’ work. By working alongside, Journey Midwife Services, Global Maternity Services, Pacific Islander Healthboard, Generations Midwifery, Rainier Valley Midwives and Center for Indigenous Midwifery, who are serving historically marginalized communities, the network amplifies their individual work and collectively builds towards a future where prenatal care is equitably accessible and culturally informed.
Best Starts for Kids invests in maternal and infant health by supporting Open Arm’s prenatal and lactation support services, culturally responsive community-designed models that match the diverse needs of King County families. By cultivating caregiver knowledge and supporting high-quality childcare, young children have a strong and safe foundation upon which they will grow into healthy, resilient adults.
While nursing may seem like an instinctive and straightforward process to most, breastfeeding mothers can attest to the ups and downs of nursing their baby. In fact, the journey can be downright frustrating and awkward. New breastfeeding mothers will quickly realize that there’s a steep learning curve to properly positioning their young, reducing breast tenderness, using a breast pump, and a variety of other practices.
To demystify the process and support caregivers every step of the way, Open Arms’ Lactation Peer Counselors meet with caregivers before the baby has even entered the world. Embarking on lactation educational sessions introduce caregivers to the world of breastfeeding and provide them with basic information on what to expect; Meeting within the comforts of their own community builds the foundation of an intimate, supportive relationship between counselors and the families.
Within the first 24 hours of the baby’s birth, the Lactation Support Peer counselors visit and support the mothers to help them nurse for the first time. In the next exciting first weeks in the baby’s life, the counselors continue to provide lactation support and begin consistent newborn weight checks. During this period, new caregivers can feel frustrated if their baby does not take to breastfeeding. This is a critical opportunity for counselors to be by their side, offering support, advice, and a sense of community.
After a couple of weeks, mothers are then introduced to Lactation Lounges – virtual “lounges” to breastfeed young and pump milk among other mothers and counselors. Open Arms holds a variety of Lactation Lounges for different communities and welcome mothers to join whichever community they identify with.
While breastfeeding rates are increasing nationally, growth within historically under served communities reflects a slower pace – an issue compounded by severe data gaps, which limits our understanding of accurate breastfeeding rates. Open Arm’s Lactation Support Program seeks to address this systemic challenge by specifically focusing on providing nursing support for caregivers who identify as African American/Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, or Pacific Islander – three communities that face lower breastfeeding rates.
Farrah Ka’healani Rivera, Open Arms Perinatal and Lactation Support Collaborative Director, shares that breastfeeding is a tradition that has been stripped from these communities, among others. By bringing breastfeeding back into their homes, caregivers are reclaiming their culture and traditions.
By connecting BIPOC caregivers with counselors who share similar lived experiences and identities, “these services are for and by us, Farrah emphasizes. Culturally-relevant nursing support and resources sees and supports caregivers for their whole selves – celebrating their heritage, traditions, and community.
“We are working to undo the harm that has been done in our communities while celebrating our strengths and identities.”
Lactation Support Peer Counselors play an integral role in supporting families through the first early steps in their child’s life. As mothers and BIPOC women themselves, they understand that lactation support is not one-size-fits-all. When Elizabeth Montez, Open Arms’ AI/AN Lactation Peer Counselor, reflects on why she helps others on their baby feeding journey – she pays homage to those who integrally supported her as a new mother.
“Supporting other indigenous folks in their lactation is the way I feel most connected to my people and heritage, I can feel the medicine in the time we spend together, and I consider it a gift to share that special time together.”
As a traditional birth keeper and lactation educator, Shevonne’s cultural fluency allows her to support families from all walks of life. Trained in the ways of the traditional African American granny midwife and doula, she is passionate about reclaiming and restoring ancestral knowledge, traditions, and rituals. Her goal is to better support, strengthen, and empower families in her community. She is a healer, an advocate, auntie, and kind stranger to many.
Mother to three daughters, Mary Concepcion – Open Arms’ Pacific Islander Lactation Peer Counselor – struggled as a new mom breastfeeding her twin girls. This experience catalyzed her journey as a Lactation professional, and she brings to her work the same love, hospitality, and community evident within the Pacific Islander community.
“We have beautiful and special cultural customs that are still observed, resilient to the attempts to eradicate their existence,” Mary says. “Nursing our babies, however, was one of traditions that was lost not just by indigenous cultures but by women for many generations.”
King County’s Pacific Islander community has one of the lowest rates for breastfeeding. Mary contributes the lack of language translation, access to care, and culturally relevant resources as prominent barriers that the community faces. “If I could tell my 22 year-old self anything, I’d tell her to find providers and a community that doesn’t just listen to you but sees and values you as a person that exists between many cultures.”
“We have beautiful and special cultural customs that are still observed, resilient to the attempts to eradicate their existence,” Mary says. “Nursing our babies, however, was one of traditions that was lost not just by indigenous cultures but by women for many generations.”Mary Concepcion
Adapting during Covid-19
Throughout the current health crisis, counselors have pivoted to meet the changing needs of their families. The Open Arms’ online community has grown as counselors have taken to YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, and other channels to host live education classes and virtual lactation lounges — offering a space for caregivers to ask questions and discuss ongoing challenges.
One silver lining through all the changes? Farrah and the teams discovered that moving online dramatically reached families beyond King County. Take their recent lactation education class: successfully hosted live on Facebook and gathering 3,200 viewers across the U.S. These lactation education classes are recorded and open for the viewing convenience.
Farrah also highlights the successful launch of the Indigenous Childbirth Educator Program amidst the pandemic. While the program launch wasn’t initially envisioned to be entirely online, it allowed experts outside of Washington state to share their knowledge with students who listened in from across the U.S. and internationally.