When Elizabeth G. Bayne learned only 59 percent of African-American women breastfeed their babies, she was indignant. “This issue resonated with me as a woman; it felt like a reproductive justice issue,” said Bayne, M.P.H. ’06, who notes 75 percent of Caucasian women and 80 percent of Hispanic women breastfeed in the United States. Besides being free and readily available for most new mothers, breast milk provides infants with enormous health benefits.
“[Not breastfeeding] puts our children at higher risk for asthma, obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases—the very same health conditions disproportionately affect the African-American community,” said Bayne, who lives and works in Los Angeles. “I feel so strongly about this.”
Bayne, who in addition to her M.P.H. has an M.F.A. in film studies from the Art Center College of Design, took her first film production class as a public health student at Yale. She now uses her dual talents to address the breastfeeding divide.
Since first learning of the disparity in 2013, she began reviewing the literature and meeting with community health providers, community groups and African-American mothers. Once grounded in the issue and connected to a network of people involved in maternal health, she began doing ethnographic research. The video interviews from research became the foundation of a public service campaign, Chocolate Milk, which began in 2014. “The campaign was essentially a Web series, said Bayne, who has produced over 30 videos featuring African-American women who nurse their babies, as well as a website and four social media channels. The videos from the Web series are available on YouTube while Bayne and her team are working on a larger documentary.
Women of all ethnic backgrounds cite a variety of reasons for resorting to formula, she said. It is difficult to return to work while breastfeeding and oftentimes inconvenient and hard to breastfeed in public. Beyond that, women simply don’t have confidence in their ability to do it.
But African-American women face some additional obstacles, said Bayne. The legacy of slavery and the stereotype of mammies and wet nursing have left an imprint with negative connotations about breastfeeding, she said. As a result, some African-American women view the practice as inappropriate or even “nasty.” And now several generations of women have not fed their babies with breast milk, mothers and grandmothers don’t understand feeding patterns or techniques or the challenges of breastfeeding during adjust to motherhood, said Bayne.
These issues and others need to be addressed and overcome. Chocolate Milk is one response.
Bayne is currently raising funds for Chocolate Milk. To learn more about the project, visit her website at chocolatemilkdoc.com.