Nikita Hardy wanted to breastfeed her first child, and she did — for about three months.
It wasn't, she recalled, an easy time.
"There was a lack of information," Hardy told me. "I was not trusting my body to let the milk come out. There were no lactation consultants [at the hospital]. Formula was pushed on me."
DAY 1: 'Any death hurts': In Schenectady and Albany, being born black is a fight against the odds
DAY 1: Birth Justice Project hopes to see more Capital Region women use doulas
DAY 2: New Baby Cafe in Schenectady aims to help nursing mothers
DAY 3: Improving birth outcomes should be a priority
When Hardy gave birth to her second child, a daughter who is now about 9 months old, she was determined to have a different experience.
"I knew it was something I wanted to do," recalled Hardy, a Glenville resident who works for a Capital Region lobbying firm. "It's natural. It's what our bodies are made to do."
For her second birth, Hardy hired a doula — a trained professional who supports women during labor, birth and the post-partum period — took a childbirth education class, met with lactation consultants and joined support groups such as the 518 Breastfeeding Mamas. When I spoke with her, she was still breastfeeding her baby daughter.
"It's empowering to hear from other women," Hardy told me, adding that "having access to a community with the same questions and concerns I had" was very helpful.
Hardy, who is black, wants other black women to have a positive experience with breastfeeding — to understand the benefits of breastfeeding and where to find extra support and guidance, should they need it.
That's why she and her friend Natarsha Horton, of Albany, founded the Capital Region Black Breastfeeding Empowerment Network earlier this year. The group is geared toward all women, with a particular focus on women of color. In August, the women organized a black breastfeeding summit at the Albany Public Library that drew about 25 people.
I was excited when I learned about the Capital Region Black Breastfeeding Empowerment Network.
One of the things I learned while researching birth outcomes and infant mortality is that black women are far more likely to experience a poor birth outcome than white or Hispanic women, but that there aren't a lot of programs in the Capital Region that specifically target them.
This struck me as an unfortunate oversight.
If black women are most at risk of experiencing infant mortality, pre-term birth and low birth weight, it makes sense to develop programs that specifically target them. The same is true of breastfeeding. If black women breastfeed at significantly lower rates than white women, it makes sense to develop programs that will address this disparity.
What I liked most about the Capital Region Black Breastfeeding Network is that it does speak directly to black women.
Not only that, but it's run by black women with first-hand insight into the health disparities that have long plagued the African-American community.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2016 breastfeeding report card, 81 percent of infants born in 2013 started out breastfeeding, and 51.8 percent were still breastfeeding at six months, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
These aren't bad numbers, especially when you consider how quickly they've risen over the past decade.
But they look a lot different when you break them down by race.
According to the CDC's July report on racial and geographic differences in breastfeeding, "among infants born during 2010-2013, the gap in breastfeeding initiation between black and white infants was 17.2 percentage points."
The report states that "multiple factors influence a woman's decision to start and continue breastfeeding. Lack of knowledge about breastfeeding, unsupportive cultural and social norms, concerns about milk supply, poor family and social support and unsupportive work and childcare environments make it difficult for many mothers to meet their breastfeeding goals."
Black women, the report notes, experience certain barriers to breastfeeding, such as an earlier return to work and a lack of access to breastfeeding support, at disproportionate rates.
Hardy and Horton also pointed to the lingering stigma against breastfeeding in the African-American community — a stigma rooted in slavery.
Back then, "black women had to breastfeed their master's babies," Horton explained. They served as "wet nurses" — and were often forced to stop feeding their own children to nurse other people's children. When slavery ended, breastfeeding was perceived as something to get away from, not embrace.
According to the CDC data, in New York white women and black women initiate breastfeeding at similar percentages — at 83.3 percent and 80.8 percent, respectively — but that the drop-off in breast feeding is much steeper for black women. At six months, 22.6 percent of white women are still breastfeeding exclusively, compared to 11.9 percent of black women.
Hardy and Horton want to eliminate these differences.
They believe that breastfeeding is better for babies and mothers, and that black babies and mothers would be healthier if they breastfed at higher rates and for longer periods of time.
"Breastfeeding is a way to get your child off on the right foot," said Horton, who has a master's degree in public health and studied racial health disparities as a graduate student. "We believe in empowering women to do what they want to do to achieve what they want to achieve."
The black breastfeeding summit organized by Hardy and Horton was held during Black Breastfeeding Week, which is now in its fifth year and falls during the last week in August.
A list titled "Top Five Reasons We Need a Black Breastfeeding Week" is featured prominently on the website promoting black breastfeeding week, and it cites the high rate of infant mortality in the black community as the No.1 reason to breastfeed.
This high rate of infant mortality is mostly the result of black babies being "born too small, too sick or too soon," the website explains. "These babies need the immunities and nutritional benefit of breast milk the most."
Hardy and Horton are both passionate advocates for breastfeeding, and their organization has real potential.
Hardy, in particular, speaks eloquently about the benefits of breastfeeding — about what it means to her personally, but also what it can do for the health of a mother and child.
"Breastfeeding is good not only for your physical health, but your mental and spiritual health as well," Hardy said.
"And it's free."
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. Her blog is at https://dailygazette.com/blogs/thinking-it-through.