When Angela Mercado gave birth to her daughter nine weeks ago, she set the intention of breastfeeding for one year – a decision she felt confident in after meeting that goal with her son, now 3.
Mercado gave birth to her first child in Germany during a military deployment. She recalled receiving advice from fellow military women, but said there was a lot about breastfeeding and newborns she either didn’t remember or never learned. She knew she would have to reach out for support when needed.
“Breastfeeding is hard. But I can do it as long as I continue to ask questions,” Mercado said.
When Mercado now has a question, she turns to Latched, a San Antonio nonprofit that offers in-home lactation consultation services to minority and low-income women free of charge. The organization’s founders, Ashley Green and Veronica Haywood, told the Rivard Report that there are only three black lactation consultants in Bexar County – together they account for two-thirds of that population.
Now in its fourth month of operation, Latched aims to increase breastfeeding rates among black and Hispanic women as a way to address health disparities.
“We help all moms, but we are primarily trying to increase the rates for African-American and Hispanic women,” Green told the Rivard Report. “Unfortunately, they have the lowest breastfeeding rates and highest infant and maternal death and prematurity rates.”
Of the 1 million women living in Bexar County, around 600,000 are Hispanic and 85,000 are black, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2016. To the founders of Latched, those numbers constitute a need.
Haywood explained that breastfeeding protects maternal health by decreasing issues such as depression and hemorrhaging, and for infants supports healthy brain development, improves cognitive functioning, and protects against infectious and chronic diseases.
National estimates of breastfeeding initiation and duration have consistently improved among black and white infants over the past decade. However, the difference in breastfeeding rates between black and white infants remains substantial.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that from 2011 to 2015, the percentage of women who initiated breastfeeding was just above 64% for African Americans, 81.5% for Whites, and 81.9% for Hispanics.
And while 79% of infants began breastfeeding, only 20% breastfed exclusively for six months, and 27.8% met the recommended breastfeeding duration of 12 months.
Green said that while Hispanic mothers initiate breastfeeding at a higher rate, they tend to introduce formula to their babies sooner – and for longer periods of time – than other populations.
Currently, Latched is being funded by Haywood and Green, who have invested their own money to purchase breast pumps, pads, and other nursing accessories to provide to mothers at no cost. Services are either completely free or sliding scale for those who have health insurance or are employed.
Green told the Rivard Report that she and Haywood bonded over their shared passion for helping black and minority women find pride in breastfeeding.
“Seeing the lack of diversity not only with the moms, but in the community, is saddening and disheartening,” Green said.
She and Haywood believe that increased cultural diversity can help further their mission and want to see pro-breastfeeding dialogue include more people of color.
“It’s not often that you see educational material that depicts women of color,” Haywood said. “If I see someone that looks like me, I am more likely to look at that flyer.”
Haywood, who noted her leadership background with the New Leaders Council, said she wanted to find a seat at the table with an organization that was talking about racial disparities.
“When I met [Green] I knew that not only did we need to do this, but we need to have our own table with out own chairs,” Haywood said.
Green and Haywood explained that lactation consultants are often seen as supplemental – not essential – in hospital settings. But as breastfeeding becomes more of a conversational “hot topic,” healthcare facilities are working to be more supportive of mothers who want to breastfeed.
Haywood said that the No. 1 reason why mothers stop breastfeeding is lack of support.
The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding in its global strategy for infant and young child feeding, stating “with full confidence” that breastfeeding reduces child mortality and has health benefits that extend into adulthood.
It recognizes, however, that breastfeeding is a learned skill, and that “mothers and other caregivers require active support for establishing and sustaining appropriate breastfeeding practices.”
When Mercado turned to Haywood and Green through Latched, she inquired about her milk supply. More specifically, she asked if supply varied with each child. When the two consultants would visit her at home, she would ask them about some of the behaviors she observed as her baby fed, and described how she felt.
Mercado said her time with Green and Haywood was about seeking information – not trying to solve a problem.
She described a time where her daughter was feeding and she would begin to gulp, as if she was chugging. She learned that she has an oversupply of milk, which results in a powerful letdown and can cause aspiration.
“Little did I know my poor baby was trying to help herself breathe,” Mercado said. “After learning that I said ‘Please help me.’”
Green and Haywood taught Mercado how to slow down the milk’s flow so her daughter could drink at a safe and steady pace. “Both me and my baby have benefitted from the information,” Mercado said.
Haywood and Green said Mercado’s success with breastfeeding is due to her solid support system. Latched is working to provide supportive services to women who want to breastfeed, starting before they give birth.
Green and Haywood hope that by diversifying the field of lactation consultation they will help increase breastfeeding among women of color.
“There is a lack of diversity in the lactation profession,” Green said, “and it bleeds over to moms.”