by Alexa Spencer
This story is part one of a Black breastfeeding series that highlights real-life stories of Black mothers and lactation 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 their babies. But that didn’t stop the 32-year-old mother of three from fighting for the resources she needed to breastfeed her children.
Her story is like many mothers who can’t turn to loved ones for support or are failed by the medical system: she had to figure it out on her own.
“Neither one of my grandmothers breastfed. My aunt breastfed, but that was before I was born. So I had no recollection of anybody breastfeeding…Like, there was nobody. So I 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 other groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data from 2015 shows that only 69% of Black mothers initiated breastfeeding, compared to 86% of white mothers.
And when it comes to exclusive breastfeeding, where babies are feed breast milk only, 17% of Black mothers nursed their babies for up to six months versus 29% of white moms.
Barriers in the healthcare system and workplace contribute to these low breastfeeding rates in the Black community. Societal stigma, which sexualizes breasts and has historically oversexualized Black women, is also part of the problem.
Grey-Simmons says she heard women in her family label breastfeeding as “nasty,” stating they didn’t want a child pulling up their shirt.
She says she hears this among other families as a certified breastfeeding specialist — a career that she eventually entered to help other nursing moms.
After giving birth to her first son at 21-years-old, she recalls not receiving much breastfeeding support from the hospital staff.
When he was born, they “held him up like he was the baby off the Lion King” movie, before whisking him out of the room for about 45 minutes.
“I told my husband, ‘Go with them. I don’t even know what my baby even really looks like. You know? So go with them. Make sure they don’t swap my baby with anybody else’s baby.’” she says.
The staff eventually returned with her son and began asking questions about her feeding preferences.
“They were like, ‘Your baby’s hungry. You’re breastfeeding, right?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And I thought that I was going to get some help. And they were like, ‘Here you go, put your baby on your boob.’ And that was it.’” Grey-Simmons says.
She recalls the one-year feeding journey that took place with her son after that as “excellent.” There was just one problem — the hospital staff told her to pump breast milk, which caused an oversupply where she produced more milk than her baby needed.
As a result, she experienced breast engorgement — a condition where the milk isn’t fully removed 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 needing lactation support again after giving birth to her daughter and becoming sick.
When she fell ill, she stopped breastfeeding but eventually recovered and visited her OB/GYN for guidance on how to reboot her milk supply. 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, ‘This doesn’t help me at all.’ So through my own trial and tribulations, I was able to relactate and I breastfed her for 14 months,” she says.
Even with all of the information she’d learned by the time she had her third child, that couldn’t save Grey-Simmons from encountering breastfeeding misformation again — this time it was by a nurse who tried pressuring her into formula feeding her newborn son.
According to a 2016 study released by Chapman University, Black mothers are nine times more likely than white women to be given formula in the hospital.
“She was like, ‘oh, you can give him formula. It’s just as good as breast milk. And it’ll make him poop. And he won’t be jaundiced.’ And I had to report her,” she said.
While overcoming her own breastfeeding challenges, Grey-Simmons became the go-to person in her friend group 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 business as a breastfeeding specialist, Grey-Simmons offers virtual education classes to mothers, families, and even people who aspire to have children but aren’t parents yet.
“I think that the families have better outcomes when everybody around is educated. So I developed a digital breastfeeding training, and I encourage my clients to have a watch party where they bring over their family, their friends, anybody who’s really going to play a role in their life, and their breastfeeding journey to come and learn 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 very white breast and pink nipples. And I wanted people to be able to see themselves in lactation literature,” she says. “So I created a coloring book so that you can color it in your own image regardless of what you look like.”
For families based within 45-minutes of the metro Atlanta area, Grey-Simmons provides in-home breastfeeding support.
She tells her clients to remember that breastfeeding is a process that naturally comes with challenges.
“Breastfeeding is natural, like learning to walk. It’s not natural like breathing,” she says. “If you’ve never seen anybody breastfeed, you don’t know how to breastfeed. You’re new to breastfeeding. Your baby’s new to breastfeeding.”
But regardless of where a person lives or their family status, she encourages all families seeking to nurse to take a breastfeeding class before giving birth. And also, identify reliable medical support.
“Have somebody in your back pocket just in case there is an issue. That way, you’re not frantically on Google, and your nipples are torn up, and you’re like, ‘I don’t care who I go with.’ And then you might deal with somebody, and they don’t really mesh well with you. And now you’ve got to start all over again,” she says.