As a mom of three little ones, Kimathi Coleman knows firsthand about the joys — and challenges — of breastfeeding.
Kimathi has turned this knowledge into a calling through her volunteer work with BSTARS in Memphis, Tennessee. BSTARS, short for Breastfeeding Sisters That Are Receiving Support, is helping to rebuild the culture around breastfeeding by providing informational and emotional support to increase breastfeeding rates among Black women.
Last year, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Tennessee awarded BSTARS a $5,000 grant to help in their efforts.
“UnitedHealthcare is committed to improving maternal health and supporting mothers early and throughout their care journey,” said Lauren Barca, executive officer, Population Health & Quality for UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Tennessee. “By partnering with local community-based organizations like BSTARS, we’re able to work together to help mothers and babies live healthier lives.”
BSTARS has virtual meet ups every second and last Wednesday of the month on Facebook and Instagram. Co-Founder Tiana Pyles answers questions and often interviews other community health experts. The organization also hosts a yearly community baby shower and sponsors a 3K walk during Black Breastfeeding Week in August.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding through a child’s first 6 months, and then introducing solid foods while continuing to breastfeed until a child is a year old or older.
Breastfeeding can keep both mom and baby healthy. Benefits to babies include lower risks of asthma, ear infections, gastrointestinal infections, obesity, severe lower respiratory disease, sudden infant death syndrome and Type 1 diabetes. Moms who breastfeed have lower risks of breast cancer, high blood pressure, ovarian cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
Not all breastfeeding journeys are the same, and that’s where BSTARS can provide a helping hand.
Volunteers like Kimathi meet women where they are. Some moms-to-be come to BSTARS and know nothing about breastfeeding. No one they know has breastfed, but they’re interested in learning more. Others already know it’s something they want to do.
“They have to be the ones who are living this journey,” Kimathi said. “I can’t make a decision for them, so I see what they’re looking to get out of it and how they want to move forward.”
Kimathi has become a Certified Lactation Counselor®, which is a national certification for those who have shown the necessary skills and knowledge to provide clinical breastfeeding counseling and management support to families.
“Breastfeeding is work. It comes naturally in a way, but you still have to work for it,” Kimathi said.
A CLC can provide the extra support mothers need, and BSTARS also helps Black mothers with the costs and journey of becoming certified. According to the Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice, only 9.9% of all CLCs are Black, Afro-Caribbean or African American.
“It’s a lot of money,” said Kimathi. “That’s another barrier. We need it in our communities, too.”
Encouraging healthy pregnancies and births is more important than ever. Maternal health outcomes in the U.S. have reached crisis levels — and they’re only getting worse.
Among Black women in Tennessee, the preterm birth rate, defined as a live birth before 37 completed weeks gestation, is 43% higher than the rate among all other women. Nationally, Black mothers experience preterm birth rates about 49% higher than those who are white or Hispanic.
Thanks to BSTARS, Memphis-area Black moms are receiving extra encouragement and education that can make all the difference.
“I’m a lifelong participant. I’m not going anywhere,” Kimathi said. “Even if I’m not having babies anymore, I’m going to be there to offer support.”