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Black Breastfeeding Week: Midlands research team aims to provide representation and education to mothers and babies

Mocha Mamas Milk works to improve the health of Black moms and their babies.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — This week is Black Breastfeeding Week and Mocha Mamas Milk celebrating. The research team at the University of South Carolina College of Nursing promotes the health of African American moms and their babies, according to its website.

"There are huge gaps in terms of research knowledge around the strategies that could be used to help improve breastfeeding, particularly among African American families," Mocha Mamas Milk co-lead and USC associate professor Tisha Felder told me.

RELATED: Mocha Mama's Milk beginning breastfeeding feasibility research study in Columbia

That's something she's trying to fix. 

Felder is working to better understand the barriers that exist for Black women when it comes to breastfeeding.

Ebony Toussaint is a mother to three children under five. 

She chose to breastfeed when she was pregnant with her first child. She says despite facing certain health disparities, she found breastfeeding as a Black mother to be the best decision for her.

"The Black maternal mortality, I know all about our diabetes rates, our hypertension and how that leads to heart disease and all the different things, so for me it was that much more empowering to kind of combat that data and give my children the best start at life," Toussaint said.

In addition to health disparities, Felder says lack of representation poses a barrier to Black mothers.

RELATED: Dr. Tisha Felder and Mocha Mamas Milk making a difference

"Breastfeeding can feel isolating," lactation consultant and mother Shannan Clarke shared. "Breastfeeding is natural, but it’s not easy. And I understand. I’ve been there and so many other women have as well."

Clarke has two children that she chose to breastfeed. At first, she said it was difficult because she didn't have examples. To learn how to navigate motherhood, Clarke attended parenting classes.

"But I was the only Black mom in those settings," she started. "And not having anyone to really be able to talk about what was going on, who I felt like represented me, that was a part of my community, was a friend of mine…in some ways it was a little bit discouraging."

Now, Clarke is hoping to change that. She is currently breastfeeding her second child, and now serves as an example to other mothers that Black women can - and do - breastfeed.

RELATED: No, parents shouldn’t feed babies age 6-12 months cow’s milk except in an emergency

Felder says this is a message that Mocha Mamas Milk supports and tries to amplify.

"When you look in the media you don’t typically see lots of photos or videos of black women breastfeeding," Felder said. "And while our numbers aren’t as high as we’d like them to be, we can look over the last decade and see that the numbers are increasing."

In addition to representation, accessibility to proper resources is important, Felder told me.

With her most recent child, Toussaint said having access to a lactation room through USC has been "honestly amazing."

"Just having a room ready and available makes all the difference and it makes me feel welcome. It makes me feel seen that people realize this is a valid medical need. My children need food," she said. "Having a lactation room means a lot. Not just the environment, but I think just mentally and emotionally having that support and feeling seen makes you feel valid and continue your choice to breastfeed and lactate."

Clarke agreed. At the job she held when she was breastfeeding her first child, Clarke said there wasn't an easily accessible lactation room. Now with a new employer, she has a private, clean room to pump breastmilk.

"This time I felt much more prepared and also well supported by the company that I work for," Clarke explained.

This has allowed Clarke to breastfeed her second child for a longer time period, she said.

Toussaint is currently studying at USC. She told me she uses the lactation rooms available at twelve different locations on campus. Emily Cato, the  Interim Director for Strategic Health Initiatives at USC Student Health Services, says students, faculty and staff who are caring for a child up to five years old can join the Parent and Kinship Care Network.

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This network shows mothers different locations across campus that are available to breastfeed or pump.

"It allows working moms to come back to either school or work and be able to continue in the American Pediatrics Guidance for Continued Breastfeeding, so it allows folks to be able to continue that through pumping in a safe and private space while they’re here on campus," Cato said.

On Saturday, Mocha Mamas Milk is hosting a Family Celebration event at Leo’s Landing - Saluda Shoals Inclusive Playground from 5:30-7 p.m.

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