Working to Close the Breast-Feeding Gap

When Dr. Chelsea McKinney became pregnant with her first child nine years ago, she and some of her friends, all African-American, felt that their families weren’t supporting their desire to nurse.

Dr. McKinney, of NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Ill., said that despite decades of the “breast is best” message, African-American women often are not encouraged to nurse as much as white women.

“When your mother hasn’t breast-fed, it’s hard to get that support to breast-feed your own child,” Dr. McKinney said. “This is where health care providers have the opportunity to step in.”

She examined the topic of race and breast-feeding for her doctoral dissertation at Northwestern University in 2012 and found significant evidence of early formula supplementation in hospitals serving lower-income populations.

She was the lead author of a National Institutes of Health community study published last summer in Pediatrics, which found that the newborns of African-American women were nine times more likely than the babies of white mothers to be given formula in hospitals – a factor the researchers considered a significant contributor to the entrenched disparity in breast-feeding rates between black, white and Hispanic mothers.

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