INDIANAPOLIS — Sierra Woods says she is the only Black lactation and breastfeeding specialist in private practice in Indianapolis.
Woods is a registered nurse (RN) and an internationally-certified lactation consultant. Born and raised in Indianapolis, Woods is a breastfeeding mother of two who says lactation support and advocacy is her calling in life.
"It just was a passion that grew," Woods said.
When she gave birth to her boys, Woods struggled to breastfeed and sought out professional help.
"It was hard for me to find someone that looked like me, that was in the field. But when I did, I was so happy!" Woods explained.
She opened her company "MelaMama" in 2020, offering 1-on-1 breastfeeding support, lactation consultation, and return-to-work help in Indianapolis.
"I was like, 'I gotta do this; this is definitely a need,'" she emphasized.
Racial Breastfeeding Gap
Breastfeeding is a critical factor in improving public health. It has many health benefits for infants, children, and mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months. The Academy also advises breastfeeding should be continued while introducing foods for an additional six months.
According to a 2017 report in the New York Times, 61% of Black mothers initiated breastfeeding compared to 78% of white mothers. In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote that Black women also breastfeed for shorter durations, with 44.7% of Black women breastfeeding at 6 months compared to 62% of white women and 57.6% of women overall.
"During slavery times, African Americans had to actually feed their slave owners' children," Woods explained. This part of Black and African American history has been linked to why generations of Black mothers didn't breastfeed their children, either due to a lack of supply or psychological trauma.
In addition to generational trauma, Woods says there are several other factors that keep women in general from breastfeeding: The sexualization of women's bodies, workplace barriers (such as paid maternity leave and a designated space to pump), stigmas, and health insurance inequities.
Woods does acknowledge that the number of Black breastfeeders has increased from years past, but it's about keeping it up for longer than a few months.
This, perhaps, is thanks to designated research, the growing support of lactating Black breasts, and the push for public education on the matter. Organizations such as Black Breastfeeding Week, and locally, the Indiana Black Breastfeeding Coalition, promote and work directly with Black communities.
Breastfeeding takes work
Breastfeeding is not something you wake up one day knowing how to do, Woods told WRTV. It takes work and practice.
"My biggest advice [to new mothers] would be, don't just assume that it's natural and then not get help and just give up," Woods said. "All you need to do is have somebody alongside you to help you."
Before she opened her private firm, Woods was a postpartum RN. During her time in the hospital, she continuously was counseling women through the process of breastfeeding.
Woods said she spent a good portion of her time coaching mothers. She coached them through their discouragement, the inability to get their babies to latch, nipple pain, or thoughts that they were breastfeeding the wrong way.
"What people don't realize is, there's actually a lot more that goes into it. It's something that you don't know how to do. You've never done it before; your new baby has no idea. So it's really something that you learn," Woods explained.
Jade Townsend is a first-time mother who reached out to Woods. Townsend told WRTV she realized as soon as she returned home from the hospital, she was going to need more support.
"I was in on Tuesday out on Wednesday," Townsend explained. "I got home and I was like, 'Oh, I still don't know what I'm really doing.' So, my midwife suggested Sierra (Woods), I reached out, and then I think she came over literally like the next day."
Townsend said it was hard to really learn how to breastfeed before actually having her baby.
"I'd watched some things before, but you really don't know what you're doing until it happens," she explained.
Because Woods' mission is to fight the misconception that breastfeeding will come "naturally" once the baby comes, she also offers prenatal coaching to address concerns and fears pregnant people may have before giving birth.
MelaMama also will talk with your family. Because women's bodies are often sexualized, Woods says men in heterosexual relationships know next to nothing about breastfeeding, much less understanding its importance.
"I want the dad to be there. So I can talk to them more about like, 'What are your thoughts? Why do you feel like you don't want her to breastfeed? Can I tell you the reasons why she should breastfeed? Like there are benefits for mom and baby for breastfeeding, as well as you!' "
WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.