Autoethnography of an African American Nursing Student: Reflecting on a Four-Year Baccalaureate Nursing Program

Autoethnography of an African American Nursing Student: Reflecting on a Four-Year Baccalaureate Nursing Program

In this essay, I present my firsthand account of my experience as an African American nursing student in a predominantly nonminority nursing program as well as my perceptions and interactions with fellow students. As an autoethnographer, I sought to answer the following question: What is the African American student nurse’s experience of education in a predominantly nonminority school of nursing and university, and how does that experience affect her as an individual?

Pre-Nursing School: Being “White”

In high school, I was called “white” by the majority of the few African American students in a high school of nearly 500 students in the Northeast. Initially, when they said this to me I was shocked. I had been on the receiving end of racially charged comments by white peers, and now I had to deal with this from my own race and ethnicity, too? I wondered why I could not catch a break. I remained confused but focused on my schoolwork. Since being a freshman, I was in honors classes, those with the maximum rigor in the entire school. It was viewed as if only the elite were in these classes, but I surely did not feel like the elite. My white peers in those classes assumed I came from the ghetto and asked me to teach them Ebonics and about rap music (which I did not listen to). I was isolated in those classes because of such stereotypical comments and the competition to be number one of the entire graduating class, but mainly because I was the only African American student in such classes. The comments from my African American peers only intensified as I was enrolled in both cosmetology in vocational school and Advanced Placement courses (which could alleviate me from taking college courses, once enrolled).

One of my African American acquaintances, who I thought seemed amicable, approached me purposefully one day in the hall. She looked like she was on a mission to find me as I put my things in my locker. I met her with a kind hello—I did not have many friends in school. I blamed myself for that, being so quiet. She stated loudly with a greeting, “Do you think you are better than us?” I said, totally confused, “Us? Better than who?” She quipped, “You know exactly who I mean, the few blacks in this school.” My face must have looked blank. I just stared at her with curiosity due to the fact that, besides the “white” comments, there was never an extended conversation or association besides my distant friendship with several other minorities. She continued to badger me, “You know you think you are better than us since you are in those special classes. Who do you think you are?” I simply responded, “Nothing.” At the time, my self-esteem was low; I had become tired of my lack of association. She was not buying it. “You know what? It must be true that you are white because you even talk like them,” she said. “Don’t ever think you are better than us. We are just as smart, although we may not be in the AP classes.” Taken aback, I explained, “I never said you weren’t. You should talk to your advisor about enrolling in one of the classes.” Without acknowledging my reply, she stormed away, saying, “Wow, you are white.” As she walked away, I blinked at her and said to the dust trailing behind her, “It is funny because my skin is black like yours.” I went on to finish my day; however, the episode never stopped playing in my head, even after I became a nursing student.

Katie Love, PhD, APRN, BC, AHN-C, wrote about the lived experience of African American nursing students in a predominantly white university in a 2010 article published in the Journal of Transcultural Nursing. One of the themes of her phenomenological study was that of fitting in and “talking white.” She reports about a study participant who had grown up in a predominantly white secondary school and had become accustomed to experiences with white students. African American nursing students who did not have such an experience described some African American students as being “Oreos…Black on the outside and white on the inside.” Such “Oreos” are described as African American students who are black but “act White, socialize, and talk like White people.” One of the participants of the study shared the following observation: “To me it’s kinda a funny thing that it’s such a problem in the Black community that you could not talk in a certain way…but if you start talking slang, then to them you’re trying.”

I could identify with Love’s study as my isolation from peers—from within my own race and from without—began in high school. In high school, I was excluded by white students because of the color of my skin and, at the same time, excluded by my African American peers because of the way I carried myself and spoke. In nursing school, my isolation continued. It would eventually lead to my depression.

Nursing School: Feeling Isolated and Excluded

Fast forward to nursing school. The faculty and advisors began our edification with a talk about the rigor of the courses. I remember a gentleman announcing, “Look around the room. See everyone here? Not all of you will be here in four years. The truth is, nearly half of you may not make it to graduation.” I remember sitting in the warm amphitheater and feeling intimidated by his words. When I looked around, as instructed, I noticed the class was made up of only three African Americans. The largest minority group were of Hispanic background.

The first few semesters were full of straight science courses, which translated into nonstop studying. I spent my days in the library enjoying my books and learning. The days went so fast, when all I did was read and study the day away. In the blink of an eye, the end of the first year arrived. All of the Hispanic students were eliminated either by not meeting academic requirements or by choosing to leave the program. I was afraid that I would be next. My classmates were mostly white students. At times, I felt I did not belong. None of my professors looked like me. The nonminority students studied together and did not invite me, much less speak to me.

I remember our professor addressing the class during our sophomore year. She advised everyone in our small section to avoid driving alone to a distant clinical site and to carpool instead. I looked around the room attempting to make eye contact but did not receive any response. My nonminority peers turned around in their seats and, within minutes, had arranged themselves into two car groups, which left me out. I told myself, “You really thought it would be different, huh?” I laughed to myself and stopped looking for a group. That experience solidified the divide for me.

In 2004, Nancey France, PhD, RN, and her colleagues at Murray State University published a pilot study in Visions: The Journal of Rogerian Nursing Science that examined the lived experiences of black nursing students and found many reported feeling isolated and discounted. One of the themes of the data was “You’re just shoved to the corner.” One African American student nurse clarified, “You may get one or two that wants to include you…You may go up to them, you’ll risk to say ‘are you going to study?’ If you think that you know them and everything’s o.k., you’ll say, ‘are you all going to have a study group this weekend?’ And they’ll say ‘yeh’. But, when the time comes…you can’t get in.” Another student reported, “I’m the only black, in all my classes I’ve been the only black. It’s hard because…you got to prove yourself. If you don’t do as well as the other students they just single you out. That’s why I have to strive to do the best I can.”

Black students also reported feeling they were only admitted to schools of nursing to meet a quota. They described the increased pressure exerted on them when minority attrition rates were high in their class. As a result, they experienced emotions such as self-doubt, fear, lack of confidence, and diminished self-esteem before attending class. Many students reported these feelings pushed them “even harder to prove they could be successful.” There seemed to be a consensus that there was an unspoken expectation of African American students to fail, which propelled these students to greater levels of determination to prove that “they were as smart as anyone else.”

Moving Up: The Benefits of Exclusion

During my third semester in nursing school, I became tired of sitting in the back of the classroom. What had once seemed comfortable became an annoyance to me. The students who supposedly knew all the answers sat in the front, always the first ones to raise their hands. However, their answers were the same as mine—always. They weren’t any better than I was. I decided to beat the caste system within my own classroom. I felt my sitting in the back row was perhaps contributing to my isolation and depression that had begun to develop. Humans are not meant to be excluded—we need contact. As a result, I started moving forward, slowly but purposefully, to avoid and overcome my feelings of exclusion.

I remember deciding I would not allow myself to sit in the back anymore. I felt like Rosa Parks as I migrated up to the middle rows of the classroom. I began to raise my hand more. I found that studying alone was beneficial to me, as I knew the full answers to questions that other students merely answered in a general way. As a result, I started raising my hand and answered insightfully each time.

I wasn’t sure of myself until my anatomy and physiology professor approached me and asked if I wanted to become a physician. He tried to convince me to enter the premedical program. I was flattered and taken aback, but I knew it was not what I wanted. I had fallen in love with the few nursing courses we were allowed to take. I could not betray my passion for nursing and really “being” with the people. However, he had not approached anyone else in the class with this offer.

It was after that discussion that I moved up and became the snob who raised her hand to answer every question, at every opportunity. It was not until then that I had my first contact with nonminority students, other than a glance. They soon began asking how well I did on my exams. When interrogated, I replied without emotion, saying I did “okay” when I knew I got an A.  They soon lost interest in me again. They did not know that their exclusion of me in their study groups was paying off greatly for me. I had become an independent and successful learner.

As the years progressed, I think they began to suspect I was doing better than just “okay” as I began to earn scholarships and recognition from my professors in class. It was unwanted attention for me because I wanted to keep my head low. What began as a business venture to simply gain a skill that would sustain me as an adult turned into a love for the profession of nursing. I had not expected that—it just happened. As my love grew, I began to excel. As I excelled, I felt the isolation increase. I had become used to it; it didn’t really bother me on the surface. It seemed other students were in school to make lifelong friends and to have a good time. I was in nursing school solely to earn my degree, focusing intently and singularly on my studies; so, most nursing students tended to avoid most nursing students avoided me.

I soon began to wonder if I had isolated myself, but then I noticed in my junior year that professors began to assign more group assignments. In those voluntary group assignments, I observed minority students chose to work together in the same groups, while nonminority students chose to work together in their own groups. I wondered if the professors noticed the same thing I did. It went on like this until the end of the nursing program.

A 2015 integrative review published in Nursing Education Perspectives reaffirmed that there are several studies where African American nursing students reported feeling “voiceless, not part of the important conversations, left outside of the cliques, alienated and insignificant.” Many minority students coped with these conditions by forming their own network among other minorities and “sticking together.” Additionally, Love noted in her study that African American students familiar with “being left out” from high school experience were better able to accept exclusion and move beyond the experience.

All that studying and exclusion seemed to work better for me. It worked out because I graduated. During graduation, I knew a select few would earn special acknowledgement for their achievements. I was sure it would not be me. I was so focused on getting out of there. I had the chance to extern on a unit in a teaching hospital where nonminority staff embraced me as if I was family. I just wanted out of nursing school. At the end of four years, it felt like prison only being able to talk to and connect with six minorities who made it to the end of the program. Now, I was free to explore the world as an adult with a real job—not just a student building up debt.

These were my thoughts as I was called up to shake hands with all of my professors. I was so focused on receiving my degree that the moment when they called my name seemed only a second. When they began to announce the special recognition awards for academic and clinical excellence, I kept looking back at my family and realized I was one of the few students wearing a purple tassel, which meant we were part of a special group: the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau. We had high GPAs.

Then I heard one of my professors say my name. I looked around and those around me whispered, “That’s you! Get up! They called you!” I had earned the award for clinical excellence. I was speechless and nearly stumbled up to the stage. I thought my professors were not interested in me, but they had nominated me for this award (and I assume they voted that I receive it). I was flabbergasted but filled with pride because I—the quiet African American student nurse—had  earned this great honor. I thought I had not deserved it, because there were so many things I did not yet know, and I knew I was not the perfect student. I critiqued myself for those few senseless Bs I had earned. It was not until I returned to my seat the second time that I realized maybe I did deserve this award. Just maybe, I had worked hard enough in that I enjoyed putting the entire patient picture together—staying in their rooms, discussing how they felt about their illnesses while taking it all in, and figuring out how I could use my knowledge to prevent one less complication. I was more than a student nurse in those moments with my patients; I assumed the role of nurse and took such opportunities with the utmost seriousness. I remember a great exhalation as everyone threw their caps to the roof of the auditorium. I was deserving.

Soon after graduation, I passed my licensing exam on the first try and began working on a medical-surgical floor at a teaching hospital. My work was challenging and kept my attention, but I soon began to crave schooling. I decided to enroll in an online program. The main reason for doing so was so no one could see my face and perhaps I could fit in for once. And I did. I felt since no one could see the color of my skin or the youth of my face there would be no divisions. It proved true. I enjoyed my online schooling and soon pursued a doctorate program online after completing my master’s in nursing education.

In a 1998 study published in the Journal of Nursing Education, author Mary Lee Kirkland, EdD, RN, concluded that the most successful coping strategies of female African American nursing students are active coping and social support. She explains that “although they may have faced times of discouragement or despair, they did not waver in their pursuit of their goals. They relied on their inner strength to take the action needed to conquer their stressors and move on successfully.” I had a support system of my spirituality, my family at home, and my friends of the same faith that kept me strong. They probably were unaware how they were the one thread that held me together through emotional turmoil and numbness.

Enlightenment Upon a Return to the University: Six Years Postgraduation

Aside from the anatomy and physiology professor, who was from the biology school, I was never sure how the true nursing faculty viewed me. It was not until I returned six years later as a clinical nurse specialist to become a mentor for nursing students like I had been—of the minority. I was also pursuing a scholarship for my doctoral education with a focus on nursing education.

When I met with one of the professors, I was sure she had forgotten me by the e-mail she had sent back when I asked for a letter of reference and to meet to discuss a mentorship program for minority nursing students. However, when I walked in the door in my professional attire, she told me, “Wow, I remember you. I wasn’t completely sure in your e-mail, but now I know who you are exactly…You were always so bright. I knew it then, and look at you now and all you have accomplished. You have your master’s and are a clinical nurse specialist….[Another professor] and I are rooting for you to get this scholarship.” Our conversation ran long before a student showed up for her advisement. The professor told me warmly, “Keep in touch. We are so proud of what you will become and have become already!” She had written my letter of recommendation. However, the recognition she provided in those moments proved to me I did not know myself those years as well as I did right then.

I had not been invisible, after all, and the award I received upon graduation was not for show, but because my professors saw such great potential in me. I had become visible to myself and the world. My confidence soared as I left the campus. I had driven in, but I seemed to fly home, alongside the clouds.

Nola the Nurse – Showing Kids What Nurse Practitioners Do

Nola the Nurse – Showing Kids What Nurse Practitioners Do

When Dr. Scharmaine Baker started the Nola the Nurse book series, she knew kids needed information about advanced practice nurses and a role model to show them all about it. What Baker, DNP, didn’t expect was the impact the character and the Nola books would have on kids or the people who would help her get the word out.

On October 27, Baker told her story on The Harry Show, in which New Orleans-native, show host, and entertainer Harry Connick, Jr. gave her a chance to talk about Nola the Nurse on a show devoted to nursing. While the experience was thrilling (and included a vacation to Punta Cana that Connick gave to her family), Baker was especially excited at the thought of having more information about nursing and advanced practice nursing reach a national audience so quickly. “He said, ‘I really believe in Nola the Nurse and I hope this show helps you go far,’” recalls Baker of Connick’s support.

Nola has really taken off,” says Baker. She started the books when she couldn’t find any books that featured African American NPs or even many that talked about nursing as a career. Baker’s books take her Nola character into people’s homes, each of which exposes her to different cultures.

Over the summer, Baker said she thought a mascot would help the kids connect nursing to real life, so she added a life-size Nola doll to bring with her when she makes presentations and reads her books to groups. “She’s a tremendous hit,” says Baker about the Nola doll.

Kids get engaged with the story and it’s an opportunity for them to listen to her heart and to check her pulse,” says Baker.

As Baker continues to develop the Nola series (three more books are set to be published starting next year), she is developing a specific structure to help kids understand what NPs do. Using the Nola mascot, stickers, activity books, and the stories themselves, Baker connects with elementary school kids in schools, camps, and groups.

As the program is taken to teens in high school, Baker finds it just easy to talk to them about nursing as a career. “It’s engaging the next generation into the world of advanced practice nursing,” says Baker.

Am I The Picture of Health? Confessions of A Stressed Out Nurse

Am I The Picture of Health? Confessions of A Stressed Out Nurse

I had never received the backhanded compliment of “oh, she has such a pretty face” until recently. That was a compliment reserved for fat women. I did not consider myself fat at all. I would describe myself as overweight, but never fat. If I could still purchase clothing out of regular department stores, I did not believe myself to be obese. Even when I was hospitalized last year and the doctor’s notes said “…obese, 47yrs old female,” it did not truly register. However, once my vanity was attacked it hit home.

Sometimes, I see myself in the mirror and wonder how did it get to be this way. I am 5’4″. I weigh 210 lbs and am a Registered Nurse! Euphemisms like “thick,”” full-figured,” and ” healthy” only mask what I know to be the truth. This body that I live in is well on its way to diabetes and hypertension. Thankfully, in this moment I do not have any of those diseases, but it is just a matter of when, not if.

Being overweight has affected my self-esteem, my sense of self-worth, my self-love. It feels like a self-inflicted punishment. When I think back to when I was slim and feeling good, it almost brings me to tears. I start asking myself how did I let it get this out of hand? Why didn’t I just get up from the table? Stop eating at fast food restaurants? Continue to exercise? I am not a fat person who does not know how I got fat. I know exactly what I did, which I think makes it all the worse.

There are times I find it difficult to teach my patients about health and wellness. I wonder if they are looking at me and finding me a hypocrite. Or are they realizing that I, too, understand how hard it is to walk that path.

The heavier I became, the more crap I accepted from the men I dated. I no longer felt I that should be respected or loved entirely. Glad that they were in my life was enough. Trust me, when you do not love you, no one else does either. I stayed with a man who told me that he did not usually date “big girls.”  So, I sat wondering, should I feel special that you chose me? I found myself always trying to overcompensate for not being thin, for not being his ideal of beauty. I was showing him that my love was not worth it because it did not come in a perfect size 4, 6, or 8. I was depleted walking out of that one.

So now at this juncture, I am ready to lose the weight. I mean do what is necessary to get to where I feel comfortable in my skin. This is not simply about my vanity, but about my life, my health, and self-love. So, I am inviting you on this journey with me. Come along.

Hi, I’m Erika.

Ciao Bella!

Why Women in Healthcare Are An Endangered Species

Why Women in Healthcare Are An Endangered Species

Women represent nearly 80% of the healthcare workforce, and they represent 77% of hospital employees. Also, 26% of hospital and health system CEOs were women in 2014. Statistics show the number of women in healthcare is rising, but there are still challenges. One of the most widely talked about challenge is gender inequality, including the lack of women in leadership positions. While gender inequality is important, this issue is not why women in healthcare are an endangered species.

Women in the healthcare industry are just as likely (if not more) to suffer from anxiety, stress, depression and other mental and emotional issues. Like most healthcare workers, women who are physicians, registered nurses, home health aides and more enter the field with a passion to help others. But if you fall into these categories, how many times have you neglected your own needs? Shouldn’t you treat yourself with the same care as a patient?

While the term endangered is normally used in reference to animals, you’re surrounded by just as many threats as a leopard in the wild. For decades, women in healthcare have suffered from stress, fatigue, strain due to schedule, insufficiency in internal training, and injuries from physical tasks. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, female physicians die by suicide at a 400 percent higher rate than women in other professions. One article posed the question “who takes care of the caregivers?”

The answer is YOU!

There are some issues in healthcare that is a work in process, but you have the power to positively influence your well-being today. Your patients need you. Your family needs you. And, you need you. So, treat yourself with proper rest, prayer, stress management techniques, supportive relationships, and be the first thing on your to-do list by adhering to your discovery checklist.

 

 

Top 5 Tips for Graduate School Success

Top 5 Tips for Graduate School Success

Top 5 Tips for Graduate school

So, you are thinking about completing your Master’s degree.  You may be just graduating with your bachelor’s, established in your career, seeking career advancement, or an overall career change.  You should commend yourself wherever you currently are in your professional journey.  Graduate school is essential for career progression and as daunting as the challenge may be it is feasible and worthwhile.  However, there are certain things that I wish I had known previously to enrolling in my first graduate courses that would have saved me a ton of grief on this grad school journey.

Learn the APA Manual

Do you briefly remember being introduced to this in your undergraduate English and Research classes?  You know, the blue book that you couldn’t wait to toss as soon as you completed those courses!  Well, don’t get too excited and toss that manual out just yet.  The APA manual will be your bible at the graduate level.  It is best to not only familiarize yourself with it but read it cover to cover.  In all seriousness, there will be no mercy for APA formatting issues at the graduate level, and failure to comply will hinder your ability to graduate.  Let’s be honest; graduate school is very expensive so do not lose points over APA errors and get your bang for your bucks when it’s time to cash in on that top G.P.A.

Proofread

Grad school will push your writing capabilities to the maximum.  When I first started, I went in under the false pretenses that I was a decent writer.  After all, my highest scores were always in English and Language Arts.  However, never underestimate the power of proofreading your document, or having someone else review it.  It is important to remember that you are not supposed to be writing as if you are talking in scholarly writing.  Read every single thing you submit out loud at least two times before turning it in.  You will be surprised at some errors you will find in your documents once you hear it out loud. I swear by Owlet Purdue, Grammarly, and PERRLA to assist with the completion of my papers.

Don’t Break

One of the biggest mistakes that I made during my Grad school journey was “taking a break”.  Apparently, life happens to everybody, but if you can help it, you should stay on the course to graduate on time.  While taking a leave of absence is certainly an option, there are some universities have a time limit on the amount of time you can spend on the completion of your master’s degree.  Taking a leave of absence sounds a nice break until you return and you are under even more pressure to complete your degree.  Stay on track and graduate on time.  Put yourself out of grad school misery.  Try not to prolong it.

Find Balance

My zodiac sign of a Libra makes finding balance very high on my priority list.  Regardless of your sign, it is essential to find a way to balance everything you have going on in life.  Many of us are career focused, have spouses or partners, children, and community obligations.  There are going to be some times that you will simply have to say no to others as well as avoid taking on too many additional duties.  You have to be able to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.  Do not feel guilty about taking a step back or going on a much need hiatus to keep everything together.  Remember that this is temporary, and there will always be opportunities to restock your plate once you have graduated.

Cost vs. Reputation

This has been an ongoing debate for such a long time.  I will give you my honest opinion and say that it is best to go for value in regards to selecting a school to attend.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with investing yourself, but please do not break the bank along the way.  Try your very best to avoid debt, save up, and develop a reasonable budget that you can use to finance your educational goals.  If you are shelling out a ton of money, ensure that the institution has a reputation that fits your tuition bill.  Student loan debt is a serious problem.  Remember that you will need to pay that money back, and if this degree does not make a high paying job seem promising to you it may be necessary to scale back.  Remember, grad school isn’t cheap!

Wrapping it All Up

I hope that you avoid the pitfalls that I incurred during my grad school journey and that these tips will help ease you in your transition and prepare you for entry into grad school.  A graduate degree is totally obtainable; it’s just a different academic dynamic.  I’ll see you on the other side!

graduation photo

 

 

 

African American Women and the Stigma Associated with Breastfeeding

African American Women and the Stigma Associated with Breastfeeding

August marks national breastfeeding awareness month, and although overall national breastfeeding rates are on the rise, breastfeeding rates for African American mothers are significantly lower than other racial groups. The benefits for both mother and baby are numerous, yet some new mothers are hesitant to do so, especially in the African American community. Why are African American women less likely to breastfeed compared to their white counterparts?

A persistent discrepancy exists between African American mothers and mothers of other races who breastfeed. African American mothers have been lagging behind their white counterparts for years when it comes to breastfeeding.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the initiation rate of breastfeeding among African Americans is 16% less than whites. Multiple factors in the African American community may play a role in these discrepancies.

Lower breastfeeding rates among African American women begin with education, or lack thereof. “You can never have too much education and information,” says Joycelyn Hunter-Scott, a mom of two young sons. When asked about a stigma in the African American community Hunter-Scott replies, “I don’t think it’s a stigma; I believe it may have something to do with the lack of education and information the mothers receive during and especially after pregnancy—especially the younger mothers.”

Hunter-Scott, who was a mother who extensively researched breastfeeding when she was pregnant, is correct regarding the lack of education during the perinatal period affecting overall breastfeeding rates. According to the CDC, some hospitals within African American communities are failing to fully support breastfeeding. In a CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, ten indicators that show hospitals are supporting breastfeeding were evaluated showing that hospitals in zip codes with more than a 12.2% African American population were less likely to implement three specific indicators. These indicators include: helping mothers initiate breastfeeding early on, having infants “room in” with their mothers after birth, and limiting what infants eat or drink in the hospital to only breast milk.

Renee Bell-Eddings, MSN, RNC-OB, whose main job function is to educate staff nurses within the Women, Infant, and Children’s (WIC) department in a community-based hospital in Houston, Texas, also knows education is the key for new mothers, but also attributes a social component to breastfeeding. “I believe the reason there is a stigma is simply [because of] the lack of education and support from family and friends. Often times we see that she is the only woman in her family that has chosen to breastfeed. We also have to understand that the family plays a big role in the choices that a mother will make concerning breastfeeding—that’s where we see the cycle of breakdown because she doesn’t have the support she needs to continue.” A new mother needs support from those closest to her when taking on the challenges a breastfeeding mother may face.

A two-time mother, Hunter-Scott breastfed both of her sons—the eldest for one year and the youngest for seven months. She credits the support of her mother, sisters, and husband during that time. “This [support] made an enormous impact on my decision to breastfeed for the timeframe that I did,” she says.

Although Hunter-Scott had the support of her family (and nearly six months of maternity leave), she can see how a mother not having support or having a short maternity leave can negatively affect breastfeeding rates in the African American community. “I think it is important that the health care staff initiate breastfeeding after birth and make sure not to give pacifiers or artificial nipples to infants. I also believe many African American women don’t have the luxury of staying home after they have their baby. Some have to go back to work within a few weeks, some a few days, so it’s quicker and easier to send the baby off to childcare with formula.”

Negative cultural influences in the African American community about breastfeeding can also play a role in breastfeeding rates. Breastfeeding has been seen by some African American women as reverting to “slavery days” when feeding a child by breast was the only option. Baby formula as we know it was developed in the late 1800’s and soon gained popularity when feeding a baby with formula was seen as something only “elite and sophisticated” mothers do, regardless of race. These advertising campaigns led many women to believe breastfeeding was a choice only for lower income mothers.

Another issue that faces a breastfeeding mother is public breastfeeding and the potential shaming from others. Feeding a child in public from the breast is often seen as indecent and given a perverse sexual connotation. Being able to feed on demand is crucial for the continued production of breast milk in a lactating mother. The shaming some women endure is enough to discourage them from continuing to breastfeed even if they have chosen to do so initially. The indecency claims of public breastfeeding generalizations make it hard for any woman, let alone an African American woman, to nurture her child through breastfeeding. Negative portrayals by the media and in our own communities have a profound effect on the initiation and continuance of breastfeeding.

The societal and commercial pressures to not breastfeed or stop breastfeeding altogether before six months of age are evident through aggressive marketing campaigns of formula producers. Societal pressures include: not having a national maternity leave law, the shaming of breastfeeding in public, and not having enough dedicated breastfeeding areas in public establishments to encourage breastfeeding. Many mothers do not have the ability to stay home for extended periods of time after birth, further encouraging them to stop exclusive breastfeeding in exchange for formula. Working mothers in the United States need support to continue breastfeeding before their baby is even born by means of national legislation for established maternity leave, breastfeeding or pumping breaks when they return to work, and a willingness from their employer to provide a conducive environment to support a mother’s wish to continue to breastfeed.

With all racial and societal factors aside, breastfeeding offers both mother and baby numerous benefits—and this is why it’s vital that mothers attempt to breastfeed for at least six months. When formula was introduced it was touted as the “perfect food” for a growing baby, but nothing compares to a mother’s milk. Breast milk has everything needed to sustain an infant and promote lifelong health. Nurturing a newborn with a mother’s milk offers baby rich nutrients that have proven benefits for both mother and baby, not to mention the money saved from not purchasing formula.

Infant mortality rates are twice as high for African American babies than white babies, and breastfeeding is the key to saving infant lives. Health benefits of breastfeeding for baby include decreasing the risk of common childhood illnesses, such as upper respiratory infections, ear infections, and asthma. It also provides long-term benefits for obesity and future diabetes risk, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Mothers benefit from breastfeeding by helping get back to pre-pregnancy weight sooner (breastfeeding burns up to 500 calories per day!) as well as decreasing risk for diabetes and breast, uterine, and ovarian cancers.

Education, education, and more education is the key to increasing breastfeeding rates in the African American community. Education has to start during the prenatal period and continue through birth and thereafter. Bell-Eddings knows knowledge is power: “Education is a big key in changing the mindset of all and allowing mom to make an informed decision.”

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