Another Mother’s Love: Exploitation, Wet-Nursing and Present-Day Black Breastfeeding
You just gave birth to your beautiful baby. As you breastfeed, someone comes and rips your baby from your chest and replaces it with your slave owner's child – or children. You may never see your baby again or you may be separated from your child for so long that your community is forced to come up with another way to nourish your infant so that it doesn’t die.
In most scenarios, the best they could offer was unsanitary water and cow’s milk. Well, that solution may have worked for some babies, but many died while your breastmilk, meant for your dying child, went to your owner’s baby – the same owner who raped you, whipped you, tore your family apart, starved and possibly killed your baby. Meanwhile, you continue to give your owner’s baby your love, affection and milk. Why? Because we arrive innocent and pure. Hatred is taught. Full stop.
This is one narrative that was played out over and over again. White women in many cases didn’t want the burden of breastfeeding, so they forced their slaves to feed their babies. Black women who breastfed white women’s babies were referred to as “wet nurses” or “mammies”. This practice is an example of how white women actively participated in slavery, while capitalizing on the enslavement and exploitation of black women. As we look at the state of black maternal health today, we cannot forget about the maternal and reproductive violence inflicted upon black women in the past. Wet nurses were created out of necessity and have existed since biblical times, which evolved into an alternative trend, until later falling out of style in the early 20th century.
We must look at the history of breastfeeding to really understand our point of view today. Some women are all for it, others are on the fence, and many of us are completely against it. Why is this?
When wet nursing fell out of style, dry nursing came onto the scene – that’s when mothers started to feed other animal’s milk to babies. The search for a breastmilk substitute was a long-time goal for physicians and nutritionists. Many studies proved that infants ingesting cow’s milk had a much higher mortality rate and rates of indigestion than babies who were fed breastmilk. By 1860, a German chemist named Justus von Leibig, developed the first commercial baby food, which was a powdered formula made from wheat flour, cow's milk, malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate. However, it was not until the 1950’s that commercial formulas began to gain traction.
During this time, the percentage of women who breastfed their newborns reached an all-time low (25%). A major factor in the acceptance of commercial formulas was their use in hospitals to feed newborn infants during the 1960s-1970s. Formula advertisements often claimed or implied that breastmilk alone was not sufficient to raise a healthy infant, so for more than 40 years, formula manufacturers supplied US hospitals with free formula and newborn starter packs to new mothers. These free starter packs were essentially an efficient (and effective!) marketing ploy by which formula manufacturers got new mothers to try their company’s formula. And as a result, has contributed to the declining rate of breastfeeding duration and exclusivity.
The low rates of breastfeeding among black women today are inextricably linked to the increased infant mortality rate among black babies. It has been shown that elevated death rates among the U.S. black population cannot be attributed to poverty. Hispanic Americans rank similarly to African-American populations for socio-economic factors, but they match non-Hispanic whites in their lower infant mortality rates. The difference is not socio-economic; rather, the difference is in rates of formula-use versus breastfeeding. Rates for exclusive breastfeeding at age three-months were 36.0% among black infants and 53.0% among white infants; at age six-months, the rates were 17.2% among black infants and 29.5% among white infants (2015 CDC).
Studies also continue to reveal that the longer breastfeeding lasts, the greater the difference in illness and death rates.
To increase the rate of breastfeeding among black mothers and infants, an intervention is needed to address barriers experienced disproportionately by black mothers. There are many factors that contribute to the low rates of breastfeeding: not only do black mothers need better breastfeeding information and support from providers, but these mothers need to be respected, listened to, and made to feel comfortable. Formula companies need to cease their blatant targeting of black women in their marketing activity. Similarly, many black mothers have to return to work earlier than they wanted, and do not have the ability to pump at work or the ability to breastfeed.
In closing, we must honestly examine slavery and its inhumane practices. We must come to terms with the fact that these practices are responsible for the high infant mortality rate among black children and the low breastfeeding rates among black mothers. Ultimately, slavery tore families apart. The practice of forced wet nursing inflicted deep pain and trauma, both physically and mentally, on black women. Not only did black women repeatedly endure losing their children, but also having their bodies exploited for sex, for labor, and for breastmilk.
It’s our responsibility to provide support, education, and healing for black women in our community. Their historical and present-day resilience, strength, and ability to love unconditionally amid such brutal conditions amazes me. It's time for Black Women's strength, love, and beauty to be recognized and celebrated.
Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender and Southern Memory by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding by Kimberly Seals Allers
“If De Babies Cried”: Slave Motherhood in Antebellum Missouri - thesis by Lucy Phelps Hamilton