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Breastfeeding is 'life or death for communities of color'

The birth of Camie Goldhammer's first daughter did not go as planned. The labor had gone long, and Goldhammer, a social worker, ended up having an emergency C-section.

And she was still in shock when a nurse gently helped her open the top of her gown to put the tiny child to her breast.

“I had not taken a breastfeeding course," Goldhammer said. "I’d never really seen anybody breastfeed. No one in my family had done that."

Goldhammer is Sisseton-Wahpeton, a tribe from South Dakota. Breastfeeding rates are low among Native women. But Goldhammer thought she’d give it a try.

"And so I latched my baby on, and in that moment I had what I call a 'spiritual awakening' where I felt the fireworks, and just, like, warmth and amazingness, and really felt the presence of all my ancestors with me."

Before she gave birth, her work focused on issues of attachment and bonding between Native parents and children. Breastfeeding was an epiphany. "I was just like, 'This is the answer, this is everything. In all this work that I’ve been doing, how has no one ever told me about breastfeeding?'"

Breastfeeding has benefits far beyond mother and child bonding. In King County, black and Native American babies are more than twice as likely to die as white infants before their first birthdays. Public health officials say breastfeeding is one key to lowering infant mortality rates — including the rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Goldhammer dove into breastfeeding research and became a licensed lactation consultant — a specialist who gives mothers advice about how to help their newborn latch on comfortably and get enough to eat. She’s one of just a handful of lactation consultants of color in the state. Goldhammer started promoting breastfeeding on reservations around the state as a natural, traditional food, and a way to improve health outcomes for babies and mothers.

Goldhammer said there are many reasons why breastfeeding rates are lower among many women of color. Studies show that when white women give birth, they’re more likely to be given breastfeeding help in the hospital. Many low-income women go back to work soon after giving birth, to jobs where pumping milk is difficult or impossible.

For women who need help breastfeeding, lactation consultants can be unaffordable or hard to access in certain parts of town. And Goldhammer said women of color can be uncomfortable inviting health care providers into their homes given this country’s ugly history with unjust child removals.

The fear, she said, is that “if you take your baby to the hospital because you think your baby's not getting enough food, then the next day you might get a knock on the door from CPS for you not taking care of your baby. That history is still very recent. So families may be making these decisions on a subconscious level.”

Angela Tam and her husband Herman hoped that Angela would breastfeed their first daughter, Rosalee. Angela’s parents are ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam, and her mother was only able to nurse Angela for several months before she had to return to work. Herman’s mother turned to formula from the beginning.

“They had to work 24/7. They were in survival mode,” Tam said. “We wanted to rewrite the story for our family,” and breastfeed.

But one month after giving birth, Tam had so many problems trying to nurse Rosalee that she found herself stuck at home all day every day, constantly pumping milk to fill bottles for a baby who couldn’t latch on to the breast.

“I gave up on breastfeeding," Tam said. "I posted all of my breastfeeding supplies on Facebook to give away.” Goldhammer saw the post and invited Tam to her free, weekly drop-in lactation clinic in South Seattle.

Until then, Tam had white health care providers for her baby.

“I think breastfeeding is so intimate. You bare your breast to a stranger that comes in to help guide your baby to your breast, again and again, maybe a thousand times over,” Tam said. "I think having a person of color be a part of a really intimate part of our journey, it takes a little bit of the scariness that comes with the vulnerability out of the equation.”

Goldhammer helped Tam figure out that her baby had a difficult-to-diagnose tongue-tie and other issues that interfered with nursing. It took a while to get it corrected, but Rosalee was finally able to nurse. Today, Tam is successfully nursing her second child, Geneva.

Goldhammer is now training other women of color to become lactation consultants. On a recent afternoon at her drop-in clinic, three interns watched intently as Goldhammer gently repositioned 5-week-old Darius into a comfortable angle to allow him to relax and focus on nursing.

“We really want him kind of nipple-to-nose,” Goldhammer explained, tucking his tiny hand under his mother’s breast. Darius finally settled in and got some suction.

One of the interns, Kristin Travis, is a doula. She was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement to help bring breastfeeding knowledge to the black community.

“I am really enjoying the fact that Camie’s very hands-on. Just showing ‘this is how the mouth should be shaped, and this is what you should look for.’ All of those things are things that are completely new to me and I am just soaking up as much as possible.”

Goldhammer doesn’t charge her interns for the training.

But she does expect them to take on interns themselves once they are certified. “Historically, this is how you would have gotten that information, by learning from someone in your community. And that information is free.”

Goldhammer says she sees breastfeeding knowledge as a human right. And, she says, there’s too much at stake to require people to pay for it. “We see breastfeeding as a life and death for communities of color, and an essential part of closing our health disparities,” she said.

Ann Dornfeld can be reached at Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.

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