A cooling breeze ruffles the trees that border Gardens Park in Summerlin. Rising in a cloudless sky, the bright morning sun causes a boy on the playground to ask mommy for his shades.
Nearby at a picnic table, Cindy Makowsky nurses her 14-month-old son, Boaz.
Joggers pass by the breast-feeding, as does a couple on the way to the tennis court. No one stares as the young black mother and her hungry baby boy, who is partially covered by a blouse, do what is natural.
"Most people are very supportive (of breast-feeding) because they know it's healthier," she says later. "Mothers will come up to me and tell me how beautiful it is to see. The bonding is so special. And it's cost-effective and easier, too. With my husband a professional poker player, I've been to Switzerland and Israel and driven cross country and didn't have to worry about sterilizing bottles and buying formula."
Earlier Wednesday, Makowsky met in the park with Shelly Clark, Danielle Owens, Sabrina Cofield and Dale Flemming of the Mocha Moms, a support group for mothers of color who have chosen not to work full-time outside the home so they can devote more time to their families. The Las Vegas chapter, which has 15 members, was formed in March, but the group has promoted the benefits of breast-feeding since Mocha Moms began in Maryland in 1997. It now has 100 chapters in 29 states.
"Scientifically, we know (breast-feeding) is the best thing for baby and mother," said Cheli English-Figaro, one of the co-founders of the group, which has its national convention at the Paris Las Vegas this week . "We're not indicting women who don't. Some women can't. And those who can need support from families and employers."
The members of Mocha Moms, who are largely African-American and college educated, can practically recite several health reasons cited by researchers for breast-feeding: The risk of sudden infant death syndrome is 56 percent higher for babies who are never breast-fed; the risk of acute ear infection is 100 percent higher among exclusively formula-fed infants; the risk of hospitalization for lower respiratory tract infection in the first year of life is more than 250 percent higher among babies who are formula-fed than among those who are breast-fed at least four months; the risk of ovarian cancer was found to be 27 percent higher for women who had never breast-fed than for those who had done so for a few months.
"The more you know about the benefits of breast-feeding, the more likely you are to do it," said Shelly Clark, a former first-grade teacher who is breast-feeding her 5-month-old daughter, Ariana.
Married to a university administrator and living on a tight family budget since she quit teaching, she also breast-fed her 2-year-old son, Alex. "My mom bottle-fed me, but I've been aware of the health benefits for a long time."
LOWER RATES AMONG BLACK PEOPLE
Mocha Moms are also aware of the fact that breast-feeding rates for black infants are less than those for white and Hispanic infants, about 40 percent lower at age 6 months.
The American Pediatric Association recommends exclusively breast-feeding a newborn for at least the first 6 months of life, followed by at least another 6 months of combining breast milk with other sources of nutrition, such as formula. At 6 months, 27.9 percent of black women nurse, compared with 45.1 percent of white women and 46 percent of Hispanics.
That disparity confounds medical experts including U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who wrote in her 2011 "Call to Action to Support Breast-feeding" that "the reasons for the persistently lower rates of breast-feeding are not well understood, but employment may play a role."
Kimberly Seals Allers, a speaker at this year's Mocha Moms convention in Las Vegas, acknowledged the value of government research that shows that African-American women tend to return to work earlier after childbirth than white women, and they are more likely to work in environments that do not support breast-feeding.
Allers agreed with research that shows women with less income and less formal education are less likely to breast-feed.
But her analysis of history has left her postulating that the days of slavery have contributed to today's low breast-feeding rates by black women. A former senior editor at Essence magazine and writer at Fortune magazine, Allers is author of "The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy," and founder of MochaManual.com, an African-American parenting website.
She is currently an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy fellow working on developing better breast-feeding rates in the African-American community.
"It is time to close the breast-feeding gap and address the negative perspective of breast-feeding that began during slavery," the New Yorker said . "We have been unconsciously trying to stop doing the things we were forced to do during slavery."
History has recorded how slave owners purchased and used black women as wet nurses for their own children, often forcing them to stop nursing their own infants to care for others. And Allers argued that the forced break from breast-feeding during slavery and after -- wealthy white women continued to hire black women as wet nurses after slavery -- "created a negative impression that still persists today."
The ripple effects of the forced break from breast-feeding cannot be underestimated, Allers said. "We tend to, sometimes unconsciously, reject things that are associated with slavery."
A cultural aversion to breast-feeding began, "when we were taken from our own children" to serve the needs of white children, Allers said. That experience gave birth to a cultural conversation of "doubt, questioning and ignorance" about breast-feeding passed on through generations, even though few black women now may know that such negativity was borne out of slavery.
She said those who doubt that such an unconscious legacy can be passed on need look no further than what happed as a result of black people being denied access to beaches and swimming pools. She said that experience has resulted in a "swim gap" that exists between African-Americans and the mainstream population.
Combine a negative breast-feeding cultural legacy with aggressive marketing by formula companies, employers who are unsympathetic to nursing women, a lack of positive black images of breast-feeding, and breasts seen only as sexual objects, and the result is a low breast-feeding rate, Allers said.
"There's something I call the National Geographic factor," she wrote on MomLogic.Com, a website directed toward black mothers. "That is most of the images we see of black women breast-feeding are semi-naked women in Africa whose lives seem so far away from the African-American lifestyle and experience. ... While modern white mothers have reclaimed breast-feeding as hip and trendy, with help from outspoken and high-profile celebrity moms like Angelina Jolie, black celebrity mothers are still mostly mum on the topic."
IMPACT IN SOUTHERN NEVADA
How well Allers' hypothesis is accepted by Las Vegas women of color is anybody's guess.
Key James, a health program specialist with the state Women Infants and Children program that promotes breast-feeding, said she needs to see formal academic studies before agreeing that slavery had anything to do with the breast-feeding rates of black women today.
James, president of the Southern Nevada Breast-Feeding Coalition, does not discount that the slavery experience could be a factor because it could have made women recoil from an experience that was associated with a "master." But she often finds younger women only seeing their breasts as sexual objects rather than natural nurturing parts of their body. "They'll say they don't want anybody sucking on my breast other than my man," she said.
Celebrities breast-feeding aren't as necessary to the black women breast-feeding movement as sympathetic employers and information, James said.
Even though laws are in place to help nursing women, many workplaces are slow to provide private, clean rooms where a mother can pump breast milk to give to her child, she said.
Yvonne O'Donnell, president of the local chapter of Mocha Moms, said the group is planning community outreach that will include breast-feeding promotion with the St. Rose Dominican Hospitals' Barbara Greenspun WomensCare Center of Excellence.
At Summerlin's Garden Park last week , Mocha Mom board member Danielle Owens, whose husband is a police officer, talked about how happy she was to breast-feed her two girls, Dana and Jane.
"I really think," said the woman who sells jewelry from home, "that once every mother who can breast-feed realizes what it can mean for their children -- giving them the healthiest start possible -- she'll do it.
"Workplaces have to help out mothers, too. You can't have women trying to pump breast milk for their children while they're in dirty restrooms or storage closets. We all have to help out to do the right thing for our children. It helps the whole country to have the healthiest children possible."
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at email@example.com or 702-387-2908.