Lactation Laws Seen Worsening Breastfeeding Disparities

From the American Medical Association to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health equity is the topic de jour. But how do you get health professionals, lawmakers, lactation providers, and the community on the same page, especially when it comes to addressing breastfeeding disparities?

It depends on who you ask.

In Georgia, a 2018 lawsuit challenging a State Legislature Bill directed toward lactation providers sits on the desk of a trial court judge, with a decision due any day now. The bill requires these providers to be licensed in order to continue to practice and receive compensation, a move that not only threatens the health of mothers and infants, but also jeopardizes a key component of Healthy People 2030: improving breastfeeding initiation, duration, and exclusivity among African American women. A similar bill is in Committee in the New York State Legislature.

“If the Act takes effect, it will force an estimated 800 different practitioners out of business and leave only 162 International Board Certified Lactation Counselors (IBCLCs) for the whole state,” Jaimie Cavanaugh, an attorney at the Institute for Justice and plaintiff coattorney said in an interview.

Ms. Cavanaugh also said that geographical data for the 162 IBCLCs demonstrate that they primarily work in urban vs. rural areas, and mostly in formal settings, factors that will further exacerbate disparities and limit access to much needed resources.

Bridging the breastfeeding divide

While overall breastfeeding initiation rates in the United States have steadily increased over the past decade from 72% to roughly 84%, only a quarter of infants are exclusively breastfed through 6 months, a rate well below the Healthy People 2030 goal of 42.4% (and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations). Comparatively, breastfeeding initiation (75.8%) and exclusivity (17.2%) rates among African-American women are considerably lower.

The effects are great: Breastfed infants have lower risks for asthma, obesity, and type 1 diabetes, while mothers who breastfeed have lower risks for hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and gynecological cancers. Notably, most of these conditions disproportionately affect African Americans, compared with Whites and other ethnicities.

A key to changing these disparities appears to lie with the type of health care provided as well as the ease by which mothers can access it.

For example, findings of a small cross-sectional study published Jan. 31 in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities highlight the importance of a broad umbrella of support for African American mothers’ feeding choices. Not only does this umbrella include medical professionals and IBCLCs, but also certified lactation counselors (CLCs), peer counselors trained under the National Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, partners, family, and the community at-large.

“We thought we were doing it right,” Lydia Furman, MD, lead study author and pediatric specialist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Ahuja Center for Women & Children in Cleveland, told this news organization. “We have a WIC peer helper, an African American IBCLC and an African American CLC, and a breastfeeding support group twice a week but nobody was using these resources.”

One of the most important findings of the study – which aimed to understand factors driving breastfeeding practices and identify supports – was that women want help when they need it. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t have resources that are available during the day, but it means that a patient support group at 11 a.m. on Tuesday doesn’t help at all if you need it Monday at 2 a.m.” Furman said.

Take TaNeeka Davis, a 34-year-old mother of three residing outside of Atlanta whose personal experience mimics those of the women in Furman’s study. “I did breastfeed my first child; when I was in the hospital. I saw lactation one time and he latched perfectly but when I left the hospital, I couldn’t get him to latch anymore,” she said.

Ms. Davis explained that she was told that she would have to wait 2-3 weeks before she was able to meet again with a lactation specialist, so she found herself supplementing with formula, and eventually seeking nontraditional help.

“The traditional medical model does not allow for me to be able to reach out and talk to my doctor immediately, does not allow me to be like, ‘Hey, can you call me back in the next 15-20 minutes or an hour because my baby’s very fussy,’ ” Ms. Davis said. “I don’t have that kind of support.”

It takes a village

A 2017 Cochrane review reinforces the value of providing women with predictable, tailored, and multifaceted breastfeeding support offered by professional or lay/peer people or a combination of both.

This model is embodied in ROSE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating breastfeeding disparities and barriers experienced by mothers of color, including inadequate medical or family support, lack of shared decision-making, recognition of financial or psychological challenges, and historical antecedents. Many of these women’s ancestors were forced to wet-nurse slave masters’ children instead of breastfeeding their own children.

One of several national organizations solely dedicated to this issue, ROSE offers a variety of services and resources ranging from lactation counseling and peer support training programs to training for health professionals (for example, pediatricians, nurses) that serve communities of color. A companion arm (ROBE, Reaching Our Brothers Everywhere) aims to bring men into the fold through breastfeeding education and peer-to-peer connection. All of these services are provided in a judgment-free, culturally sensitive environment.

“We need to look not only into maternal health issues … but also offer support to people who are working in the birthing community,” cofounder Mary N. Jackson, a CLC, WIC lactation consultant, and former president of the Georgia Breastfeeding Coalition said in an interview.

“We have Morehouse pediatricians coming to us just to talk to moms on how they can support them in the community. We have training – Community Transformers – where we talk to moms regardless of their social backgrounds; they’re working in the community helping other moms with breastfeeding, or moms will call them (with) their questions,” Ms. Jackson explained. Ms. Davis is now one of these women.

“Having the women of ROSE support me … was such a game-changer,” she said. “Sometimes that support that you need, that is helpful, is peer-to-peer,” she noted, adding that ROSE does a lot more than fill in the gaps medically, but also psychologically.”

More pillars, less judgment

TaNeeka Davis pointed out that removing a pillar in the community like ROSE and other grassroots support outside of traditional models will likely have the opposite effect that lawmakers and the lobbyists fighting for certification and licensing aim to achieve, especially if other states adopt the same approach.

“The disparities are going to get even greater, you are going to see bigger gaps, less women even initiating breastfeeding. Why start something that you can’t finish? You can’t tell me that making laws that limit the amount of help we are able to get when it comes to breastfeeding will not have a detrimental effect – health effects – later in life,” she said.

Neither Ms. Jackson nor Ms. Davis believe that medical professionals should be replaced but rather that adjunctive, community-based help is integral for bridging the breastfeeding divide.

As clinicians, “we have to go beyond not judging to trying to figure out where people are, to meet your patients where they are,” said Furman. “It’s like the difference between cultural competence and cultural humility, which is more of an ongoing process.

Furman and Ms. Davis report no relevant financial relationships. Ms. Cavanaugh is the coattorney on the lawsuit. Ms. Jackson is employed by ROSE.

*This story was updated on Feb. 11, 2022.

This story originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.​​​​​​​

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