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McKenna researches breastfeeding

Sara Felsenstein | Thursday, September 1, 2011

Breastfeeding might be more important for a child’s health, and possibly even survival, than many people realize.

Jim McKenna, professor of Anthropology and director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory, said a study showed about 70 percent of white women breast-feed, while only about 26 to 30 percent of African-American women do.

For every six white babies that die in St. Joseph County, 30 African-American babies die, he said.

McKenna called this statistic “shocking.”

That’s why on Thursday, in collaboration with nursing staff at Memorial Hospital and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) professionals, McKenna will begin a research project to determine why black women in the area don’t breastfeed. The team will hold a series of focus groups downtown with African-American women of varying ages, pregnant, with and without babies.

“It could be an economic factor, work issues, family issues,” McKenna said. “We’re really trying to figure out in a local way what seems to be the constraints that confront our citizens here.”

McKenna said not all deaths are related to bottle-feeding, but feeding choice is one possible factor that could help explain the significant disparity in survival between white and black babies.

The project is called Health Disparities in St. Joseph County: Understanding Why Black Women Don’t Breastfeed, and is funded through the Ganey Community Grant.

McKenna said the project has been in the works for about a year and a half. It was the hospital’s original plan and idea, and he was invited to be a part of the team.

The project isn’t just theoretical — McKenna said it’s intended to be applied.

“The real purpose of this is to actually implement a program based on these findings,” he said. “More education, maybe some things the county can put money toward to promote the ability of black women to decide to breastfeed.”

McKenna said that poverty and routines of the daily workforce might be one reason why black women do not breast feed. Women in poverty are often forced to be away from home to work, making it extremely difficult to breastfeed.

“It could be that this poverty issue doesn’t create the kind of stability that permits people to be able to commit to this particular behavior,” he said. “It’s very difficult to be able to breastfeed their babies under these kind of circumstances.”

He also said there could be a cultural element to the problem. Though purely speculative, he said breastfeeding might have negative associations for black women, dating back to when they were forced to breastfeed the children of white slave owners.

“That heresy has a legacy that can be passed on from generation to generation,” he said.

Studies have shown, McKenna said, that across all ethnic groups and religious groups, as the economic status of a woman increases, so does the likelihood that she breastfeeds.

McKenna said breastfeeding benefits the health of both the mother and the baby.

“[It] establishes a better attachment relationship, contributes to immunity baby’s lifetime, helps prevent breast cancer,” he said. “That’s really great for moms.”

He said there are even some suggestions that breast milk helps prevent certain kinds of childhood cancers.

McKenna recently sent an email asking students for help in conducting the discussion sessions.

He said he was initially worried not many students would volunteer, but he received an “overwhelming response” from students.

“I’m just so thrilled,” he said. “I must have had about 35 responses within an hour. People are very interested in the issue, I was very impressed with the lovely kinds of statements students [made.]”