UK researchers highlight support efforts during Black Breastfeeding Week

photo of Danelle Stevens-Watkins
Danelle Stevens-Watkins, Ph.D., professor of counseling psychology in the UK College of Education, conducts health disparity research covering a range of health issues and their disproportionate impact on Black individuals.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 30, 2022) — As Black Breastfeeding Week is celebrated in the U.S. from Aug. 25-31, researchers at the University of Kentucky are highlighting research and outreach initiatives supporting Black mothers’ choices to initiate and continue breastfeeding.

The university’s SPEAK project (Support Peers for Breastfeeding Expansion among African American Kentuckians) was designed by Danelle Stevens-Watkins, Ph.D., professor of counseling psychology in the UK College of Education Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology and UK’s associate vice president for research in diversity and inclusion.

Stevens-Watkins is leading the SPEAK team in not only gathering data through interviews with Black mothers but also creating research-informed outreach programs to help counteract the inequitable access to support and resources and medical racism Black mothers may encounter.

In one of their latest projects, researchers on the SPEAK team received funding from the UK Center for Health Equity Transformation to conduct interviews with Black mothers on how their interactions with health care systems facilitated or hindered their breastfeeding initiation and continuation. Results of the interviews appear in the paper, “Social Health Care Determinants of Breastfeeding Black Women: A Multigenerational Study,” published in the August 2022 edition of the journal, Breastfeeding Medicine. In addition to Stevens-Watkins, the paper is authored by UK College of Education faculty and graduate scholars Candice N. Hargons, Ph.D., Jardin Dogan, Ph.D., Natalie Malone, Jasmine K Jester and Shemeka Thorpe, Ph.D., and in collaboration with Ana Maria Linares, DNS, associate professor in the UK College of Nursing.

Other initiatives conducted by the SPEAK team include an exploration of breastfeeding messages and myths within Black communities. The team is working to help counteract messages that may deter breastfeeding.

“Friends and family often influence breastfeeding decisions in the African American community,” Stevens-Watkins said. “It’s not uncommon for new mothers to hear discouraging messages and myths. By recruiting women in various age groups to talk with our project team, we hope to gain an understanding of the generational and cultural messages that women are sharing and how those messages influence women’s choices to initiate and continue breastfeeding.”

The SPEAK team trains lay community members to become breastfeeding peer support counselors. These individuals, called “community transformers,” have become a support team to provide encouragement and resources to mothers. They recently shared about their support efforts on LEX18 News.

Stevens-Watkins conducts health disparity research covering a range of health issues and their disproportionate impact on Black individuals. After a personal experience with a lack of breastfeeding support, she went through the process of becoming a certified lactation counselor. She is now one of only six African American women who have become certified lactation counselors in Kentucky in recent years.

“In Kentucky, the rates of breastfeeding among Black mothers are dismally low. We hope to raise the rates by not just collecting data on the messages mothers may be receiving from family members and the medical community, but also use that information to provide support in the motherhood journey. As university researchers at a land-grant institution, it is important we focus on research we can use to support our communities and make a difference.”

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.