Ruby Washington has eaten at only one spot and had only one food in all her life. There she has found everything her body needs, and even more for her brain.
Ruby is 10 months old, and that spot is her mother's breast.
This week, she and her mom, Jamila Kinnay-Jones, 20, volunteered to encourage moms in the African-American community to breastfeed their babies.
Lea Johnson is one of Ruby's favorite people and one of Kinnay-Jones' most valuable supporters. She's a Nurse-Family Partnership visiting nurse with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, and her aim is to help new moms understand the health, emotional and economic benefits of choosing to breastfeed rather than defaulting to formula.
In particular, she works with African-American moms and babies in Pierce County Council District 4, which includes Hilltop and North Tacoma. Data show that district has the highest percentage of African-American moms in the state and the highest risk scores for lack of prenatal care, pre-term deliveries, low birth weight and infant mortality. Her job is to help moms beat the risk factors and give babies the best start possible. Breastfeeding is one of the simplest, most natural, cheapest and most effective ways to do that.
But breastfeeding is the exception among African-American moms, Johnson told Evergreen State College students this week on a panel that addressed race, community activism and communications. The healthy practice has an image problem, literally, she said. When the media run pictures of breastfeeding moms and babies, they usually are white. She'd like to change that, she said.
I was on the same panel, and when one of the students asked if the Tacoma Weekly had written about the program, Johnson and I looked at each other.
“Let's do it,” we agreed.
The next afternoon we were listening to Kinnay-Jones talk about the benefits of and barriers to breastfeeding, and how Johnson's support has helped her maintain it.
“I think it makes a big difference in how Ruby and I bond,” Kinnay-Jones began. “Because I breastfeed her, she gets that exclusive attention, and all the nutrients she needs, naturally from my breast milk. The milk itself is really important. The immunities that come to her with the breast milk are totally different than what she would get with formula.”
Johnson noted that breastfed babies have fewer doctor's visits, cavities, skin problems, urinary tract infections, eye infections and obesity. They are less likely to die before their third birthday.
“But the moms don't have a lot of support,” Kinnay-Jones said.
People tell her that formula is easy and modern.
“I couldn't imagine having a budget for formula, or what I would do if I ran out in the middle of the night,” she said.
Formula can cost $1,000 a year. Breastfeeding is free, and always available.
People tell her that it stands in the way of getting a job.
She has a job, and if she has to, she can pump breast milk for Ruby.
People, and some of them are in Ruby's family, insist that the baby needs more nourishment.
She replies that Ruby meets and exceeds all developmental milestones and that science shows that she is getting everything she needs. She started walking at nine months.
She's all over the house, smiling and playing and learning to talk.
“Go Ruby!” her mom tells her. “Go Ruby!”
“There's a lot of insecurity about breastfeeding in public,” Kinnay-Jones said. “At the mall I was breastfeeding Ruby. She was completely covered with a blanket, and three people stood up and looked at us like 'What is she doing?' If they have a problem, it's their thing. I'm feeding my baby. I'm taking care of my baby.”
Kinnay-Jones said breastfeeding is better for moms, too.
“It made me more conscious of my diet,” the slim, fit 20-year-old said.
And it makes her a better, more patient mom.
“The oxytocin – the love hormone – that is released relaxes the nursing mother, reminds mommy that it feels good to be a mother, that her child alone can give her a calming sensation that releases stress,” she said.
That calm helps her refrain from snapping at people who think she ought to raise Ruby their way, instead of the best way.
“I feel so much pressure from the outside to bottle-feed Ruby,” she said. “But breastfeeding develops a different kind of character, being more loving and nurturing and connecting to people in a different way. We are more attentive. I can see Ruby problem-solving. It amazes me how much she can absorb.”