Dr. Cornelia Graves, St. Thomas Ascension says Black mothers who breastfeed have better health.

By Clare Bratten

NASHVILLE, TN — A Nashville physician worries that the Black community has a negative impression of breastfeeding when, in fact, it has far better health outcomes for both mother and baby. “Breastfeeding has a number of benefits for babies. However, we also know that there are a lot of health benefits for the mother,” says Dr. Cornelia Graves, St. Thomas Ascension Hospital.

Breastfeeding helps babies gain weight appropriately (because they are not overfed), because “it takes at least 4 days before a mother’s milk comes in – and a newborn baby’s stomach is the size of a cherry” so the slow ramp up of milk in breastfeeding naturally matches the baby’s ability to digest.

Breastfeeding usually results in weight loss for the mother. A breastfeeding mother burns 500-600 more calories a day than she normally would.  By contrast, pregnant mothers burn fewer calories.

 “Carrying a singleton baby in pregnancy burns 300 extra calories. So, for expectant moms, it’s only one extra bagel a day, not ‘eating for two,’” says Dr. Graves.

Studies indicate breastfeeding a baby delays the onset of type 2 diabetes in patients who have developed gestational diabetes. A lot of maternal mortality and morbidity doesn’t occur at the time of delivery, it occurs afterwards. Breastfeeding mothers have a higher level of oxytocin which improves blood vessel health. One study that compared heart health in women who breast fed to women who never breastfed found that “women who had breastfed their baby had a 11% decrease in the risk of developing heart diseases,” said Dr. Graves.

A mother also passes on antibodies against disease (including antibodies against the corona virus) that protect her breastfed baby for six months. This research is part of a new perception that the impact of pregnancy lasts beyond three trimesters. The 12 weeks after the birth of her baby is what the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine now calls the “Fourth Trimester.” 

Despite the benefits to both mother and child, Dr. Graves worries that breastfeeding has a negative connotation among the African American community.

“History matters. Historically Black women were asked to be wet nurses. So, breastfeeding has a connotation that might not be acceptable.” Dr. Graves compared the sexualized and very visible fetishism of women’s breasts in popular culture to the uneasiness over breastfeeding in the community when, in reality, “breastfeeding a baby is what breasts are made for.”  

Professor Katherine A. Foss of Middle Tennessee State University publishes on the perception of breastfeeding. Foss said that, in the past, women with higher economic status bottle fed their babies, so there may have been some perception it was more desirable. Also, many hospitals allowed formula companies to provide a gift diaper bag with infant formula to new mothers. “When the formula companies target different communities, and there’s a lack of support for breastfeeding and education on breastfeeding, that can really destroy breastfeeding efforts,” Foss said. 

Now, St. Thomas Midtown is one of three “baby friendly” hospitals in Tennessee, along with Erlanger in Chattanooga and Maury Regional Memorial hospital in Columbia that encourage and support breastfeeding. A “baby friendly” hospital is one that places the baby in the room with the mother, promotes breastfeeding, has support staff to help new mothers have success with breastfeeding

“We are very intentional about promoting breastfeeding, training in breastfeeding. We have an outpatient breastfeeding clinic for patients in the Ascension system.”

When a new mother leaves the hospital, there are support groups for nursing mothers of color – Mocha Moms, Black Mommas Matter. Dr. Graves said these groups work “to overcome some of the stigmas in the Black community or in poor communities where people think you are encouraging them to breast feed because that’s a sign that they can’t afford to do anything else.”