On the last Saturday in August, a group of women will gather at Fairview Park in north Minneapolis. Some will have their babies with them, some won’t, but all will be there for one thing: to celebrate Black breastfeeding families at the sixth-annual Chocolate Milk Day.
The brainchild of LaVonne Moore, a nurse practitioner, midwife, childbirth educator and certified lactation consultant, Chocolate Milk Day is the big annual event for the Chocolate Milk Club, an organization focused on normalizing breastfeeding in the Black community.
“Breastfeeding has so many benefits for all babies and mothers,” Moore said. “It creates children that are well and resilient and happy. It is a valuable tool that has been underutilized.”
Moore had always been aware of the benefits of breastmilk, but the point was driven home to her years ago when she was working on her doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree at St. Catherine University.
“It was during the crack cocaine drug epidemic in our community,” Moore recalled. As she learned about the neuroscience of breastfeeding and how breastmilk can help heal and rewire damaged pathways in babies’ brains, she stopped short.
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness. This is a tool that we can use for good, a tool we should be using,’” Moore said. And besides, she knew that all babies benefit from breastmilk: “Breastfeeding is a tool that can heal the bodies of all of our children. It’s something important that we can do for ourselves.”
Since that realization, Moore has been on a one-woman campaign to encourage as many Black mothers as possible to breastfeed their babies. A well-respected health provider and activist in her north Minneapolis neighborhood, she’s focused on the benefits of breastmilk for infant development — and for maternal health.
She founded the Chocolate Milk Club as a welcoming resource for Black mothers. The group holds monthly meetings, provides virtual lactation support and even offers at-home visits for mother-baby pairs in serious need of nursing assistance.
“This is our tool to promote breastfeeding in the Black community,” Moore said of the club. “It’s also a way to let people know they are not alone. It is a way to reclaim breastfeeding as a key cultural practice and normalize that within our community.”
Building community support
Moore’s focus on Black mothers and babies takes on a more urgent tone when she considers the fact that African Americans have the lowest breastfeeding initiation rate of all racial groups. She sees the Chocolate Milk Club as part of her own personal campaign to change that statistic.
One of the goals of the club, Moore said, is to “educate people about the impact of historical trauma on the perception of breastfeeding.” Black mothers have been proudly nursing their children for centuries, she said. “Our goal is to get people to reclaim that practice. The Chocolate Milk Club is a vehicle to do that. We provide support for women, plus activities and education so that mothers can breastfeed as long as possible.”
Moore sees her breastfeeding advocacy as a way to narrow health gaps and give Black children a leg up in life. “Breastfeeding is an excellent way to impact health disparities,” she said.
At NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center, where she focuses on obstetrics and gynecology, Moore has advocated for more lactation support for her patients. Thanks to her efforts, the clinic became one of the first breastfeeding-friendly clinics in the state.
Through work of her organization’s volunteer chocolate milk council, Moore said, “I’ve been seeing more women in the community initiate breastfeeding.” At NorthPoint, she added, “We now have lactation rooms. And we have new staff that are also lactation consultants.”
Moore said a culturally-specific approach to breastfeeding support and education is important. Many Black mothers don’t have breastfeeding role models. She is working hard to change that. “The barriers to breastfeeding are historical traumas that impact many Black women’s view of breastfeeding,” she said. “People want to breastfeed but they also want support and education to do so from people who look like them.”
Being connected to other Black breastfeeding mothers — and to a Black lactation consultant — helps make this part of motherhood seem much more accessible, Moore said. She offers home visits to Chocolate Milk Club members as a way to further this knowledge and support in the earliest days of a baby’s life.
“For a new mom and baby, those first two weeks are critical for breastfeeding success. Why should they have to come out in 20-below zero weather to be seen in a lactation clinic when they are having a problem? Someone should see them in their home environment.”
Community of support
Sierra Dillard is a breastfeeding expert. A mother of six children aged eight months to 22 years, she made the decision to nurse her first child after learning about the benefits of breastmilk during pregnancy-education classes.
Dillard turned 16 just after her first child was born. “I learned during my pregnancy, through a group for teen moms, about the benefits of breastfeeding,” she recalled. “That’s what pushed me toward it. All I knew was that this was the best thing you could do for your baby.” She also had plenty of support from her family and friends.
Breastfeeding worked so well the first time around that Dillard breastfed all of her children. A Hennepin County WIC breastfeeding peer counselor, doula and childbirth educator at Face to Face Clinic in St. Paul, she was planning a Black Breastfeeding Week party when first she learned about the Chocolate Milk Club.
“I’d always known about Dr. LaVonne and the work she was doing,” Dillard said. Joining the Chocolate Milk Club felt like a perfect fit for her. “I thought it would be a great way to get to know her and also support Black women in the community.” Dillard started by volunteering to help with an event, and then later joined the club’s organizing council.
“I think that Chocolate Milk Club is a great opportunity for like-minded individuals to come together and to not only learn about breastfeeding but also celebrate it,” she said. “It creates an opportunity to connect with other mothers and their children.”
She said she thinks that breastfeeding helped her children to be “less sickly, have less need for doctor’s visits for things like ear infections. I feel like they pass their milestones much faster.” And, Dillard added, as her older children become young adults, she continues to see advantages in them that she chalks up to how they were fed in the earliest days of their lives.
“I feel like the growth and development of my children was much different than I’ve seen in formula-fed babies,” Dillard said. “They are growing into adults wise beyond their years.”
The sixth-annual Chocolate Milk Day will be held 3-5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27, at Fairview Park, 621 29th Ave. N., Minneapolis.