Black and breastfeeding: a lactation specialist to help more women do it

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Certified breastfeeding specialist, Sterling Grey-Simmons, overcame poor education and lack of medical care – and now she’s here to help others. (Credit: Illustration by Alexa Imani Spencer/Photo courtesy of Sterling Grey-Simmons)

by Alexa Spencer

This story is part of a series on black breastfeeding that highlights real-life stories of black mothers and breastfeeding specialists navigating disparities and creating solutions in today’s maternal health climate. .

Sterling Grey-Simmons, who lives 30 miles south of Atlanta in McDonough, Georgia, is a first-generation breastfeeder, meaning no one in her immediate family breastfed her baby. But that didn’t stop the 32-year-old mother of three from struggling for the resources she needed to breastfeed her children.

Her story is like that of many mothers who cannot turn to loved ones for help or who are rejected by the medical system: she had to fend for herself.

“None of my grandmothers breastfed. My aunt breastfed, but that was before I was born. So I had no memory of anyone breastfeeding… Like, there was no one there. I so really had to figure it out on my own,” she told Word In Black in a video interview.

Breastfeeding rates among black mothers are significantly lower than those of other groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data from 2015 shows that only 69% of black mothers started breastfeeding, compared to 86% of white mothers.

And when it comes to exclusive breastfeeding, where babies are fed only breastmilk, 17% of black mothers breastfed their babies for up to six months compared to 29% of white mothers.

Barriers in the healthcare system and workplace contribute to these low breastfeeding rates in the Black community. Social stigma, which sexualizes breasts and has historically oversexualized black women, is also part of the problem.

Grey-Simmons says she’s heard women in her family call breastfeeding “nasty,” saying they didn’t want a child riding up their shirt.

She says she hears this from other families as a Certified Breastfeeding Specialist – a career she eventually embarked on to help other breastfeeding mothers.

After giving birth to her first son at 21, she recalls not receiving much breastfeeding support from hospital staff.

When he was born, they “held him like he was the baby from The Lion King movie”, before dragging him out of the room for about 45 minutes.

“I said to my husband, ‘Go with them. I don’t even know what my baby really looks like. You know? So go with them. Make sure they don’t swap my baby with someone else’s baby.’ ” she says.

The staff eventually came back with her son and started asking him about his food preferences.

“They were like, ‘Your baby is hungry. You’re breastfeeding, right? And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And I thought I was going to get some help. And they were like, ‘Here, put your baby on your tits.’ And that was it.’ says Grey-Simmons.

She remembers the year-long feeding trip with her son afterwards as “excellent”. There was only one problem: the hospital staff told her to express her breast milk, which caused an overproduction where she produced more milk than her baby needed.

As a result, she suffered from breast engorgement – ​​a condition in which the milk is not completely withdrawn and the breasts swell and tighten. The condition can sometimes be painful.

“I used to pump a gallon of milk every day…So I was like in a perpetual state of walking around engorged,” Grey-Simmons says.

Three years later, she found herself in need of breastfeeding support again after giving birth to her daughter and falling ill.

When she became ill, she stopped breastfeeding but eventually recovered and consulted her obstetrician/gynecologist on how to get her milk supply going again. The doctor then referred her to the lactation consultant at the hospital where she gave birth.

“She gave me… lactation cookies and that was it. And I was like, ‘That’s not helping me at all.’ So, through my own trials and tribulations, I was able to get the milk back and nursed her for 14 months,” she says.

Even with all the information she learned by the time she had her third child, it couldn’t stop Grey-Simmons from encountering a breastfeeding deformity again – this time it was from a nurse. who tried to pressure her into feeding her newborn son. .

According to a 2016 study published by Chapman University, black mothers are nine times more likely than white women to receive formula in the hospital.

“She was like, ‘oh, you can give her a formula. It’s as good as breast milk. And it will poop. And he won’t have jaundice. And I had to report it,” she said.

While overcoming her own breastfeeding challenges, Grey-Simmons became her friend group’s go-to person for breastfeeding information.

She says she and her husband noticed “There was a need for people to have breastfeeding help outside of the hospital”, so they started Loyal Lactation in 2016.

Through her breastfeeding specialist business, Grey-Simmons offers virtual education classes for mothers, families, and even people who are aspiring to have children but aren’t yet parents.

“I think families do better when everyone is educated. So I developed digital breastfeeding training and I encourage my clients to host a watch party where they bring their family, friends, anyone who is really going to play a part in their life and breastfeeding journey. to learn more about breastfeeding. ,” she says.

She also offers educational breastfeeding coloring books that provide representation for all types of women.

“I realized that a lot of the breastfeeding literature was about very white breasts and pink nipples. And I wanted people to be able to see themselves in the breastfeeding literature,” she says. “So I made a coloring book so you can color it to look like you, no matter what you look like.”

For families based within 45 minutes of the Atlanta metro area, Grey-Simmons provides in-home breastfeeding support.

She tells her clients to remember that breastfeeding is a process that comes naturally with challenges.

“Breastfeeding is natural, like learning to walk. It’s not natural like breathing,” she says. “If you’ve never seen anyone breastfeed, you don’t know how to breastfeed. You are new to breastfeeding. Your baby is new to breastfeeding.

But no matter where a person lives or their family situation, she encourages all families who want to breastfeed to take a breastfeeding course before giving birth. And also, identify reliable medical support.

“Have someone in your back pocket just in case there is a problem. That way you’re not frantically Googled, and your nipples are ripped, and you’re like, “I don’t care who I go with.” And then you might be dealing with someone, and they don’t really get along with you. And now you have to start all over again,” she says.

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