In August each year, we celebrate National Breastfeeding Month. It’s an opportunity to recognize the importance of breastfeeding and consider the challenges still before us in ensuring all mothers can breastfeed if they choose. Paid leave is an essential tool in establishing and sustaining breastfeeding.
This Black Breastfeeding Week, we were thrilled to sit down with Dr. Flora Ukoli, M.D., MPH., IBCLC. Dr. Ukoli is a Professor of Community Medicine at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, the first historically Black four-year medical school in the South. She is a World Health Organization Breastfeeding and Lactation Master Trainer, and has engaged in extensive Baby-Friendly breastfeeding promotion and advocacy in Nigeria and the United States.
This interview has been edited for length & clarity.
A Better Balance’s Feroza Freeland: What inspired you to become so passionate about breastfeeding research and advocacy?
Dr. Ukoli: As a child, I knew that mothers breastfeed babies. I saw my mother, aunties, neighbors, and all their friends breastfeeding. Then as a medical student, I learned about the wonderful benefits of breastfeeding, both for the mother and the child. I assumed that once I became a mother, I would do the same. It was a big shock to me when the nurses in my teaching hospital did not help me breastfeed my newborn. In fact, they were very antagonistic when I asked to breastfeed. As far as they were concerned, formula feeding was the routine, and I should stop disturbing their routine.
Luckily for me, on the third day in the hospital, one nurse saw how sad I looked. She consoled me and wanted to know why I was so sad. I said, “Nobody is letting me breastfeed my baby!”
She told me not to worry, that I was going to breastfeed today, and she would bring me the baby at the right time. And she was talking to me and rubbing my shoulders, making me laugh and relax. When she brought the baby, you can guess what happened- the baby just latched and started breastfeeding! And from that day on, the baby was breastfed.
That was when I knew that for my own teaching hospital, there was a need for us to revise the routines so that people could breastfeed. Some years later, the baby-friendly initiative was introduced, and the director of the hospital was asked to choose a doctor to be the first breastfeeding program coordinator. He chose me! All of a sudden, I got all the training from the World Health Organization and became a certified Breastfeeding and Lactation Manager.
Fast forward almost two decades later, I moved to the United States and realized that the medical profession was where we were in Nigeria in the 1980s. They were still in the dark about the need to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding. I knew I needed to be involved with breastfeeding advocacy here in the United States, especially since I have the training.