Mother’s Day: The Resilience of Black Breast-Feeding

Your Take: Replacing breast milk with formula has been pitched as empowering—but it can actually restrict families’ choices.

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It was out of love, compassion and the promise of better opportunities that my mother fed me baby formula.

Being new to America and struggling to breast-feed so soon after her cesarean section, my mother made desperate phone calls to my grandmother back home in Jamaica for support. The international calling cards (remember, this was in the 1980s) would expire just when I went into a screaming fit. After two stressful weeks, though she initially wanted to stick to Jamaican traditions—including nursing—she switched to formula. American advertisements had promised her that she could avoid the pain and trials of nursing and buy her daughter the best nourishment the world could offer.

It’s a common story.

Many older millennials and Gen Xers have parents who opted not to breast-feed. Because of effective marketing of baby formula and women entering the workforce, more parents chose not to breast-feed from the 1940s until a stable resurgence in breast-feeding in the mid-1990s. In 1972 only 22 percent of parents initiated breast-feeding, a historic low.

Since the late 1940s, baby-formula advertising has successfully branded products as scientifically improved, healthier alternatives to breast milk. Successful ad campaigns like this one, which featured the Fultz quadruplets, would completely overtake any imagery of breast-feeding mothers. The National Institutes of Health reports that as “hand-feeding” advertisements increased in publications like Parents magazine, rates of breast-feeding declined.

In the 1990s, public health programs began to heavily emphasize that “breast is best.” By 1995, 60 percent of mothers initiated breast-feeding with their newborns. In 2013, 77 percent of women nationwide initiated breast-feeding (pdf) with their newborns. Breast-feeding rates for black families increased from a low 36 percent in 1993-94 to 65 percent in 2005-06.

As birth worker and student midwife Tamika Middleton puts it, when she was growing up, “Formula feeding was so common, I didn’t even question that it could be different.” 

She decided to breast-feed her children despite the heavy push she received at community health clinics to choose formula. She said that when it was time for her to decide, she was inundated with free formula samples, coupons and other goodies from formula-makers. She also said that there wasn’t nearly as much promotion of breast-feeding. 

Formula was, and continues to be, pitched as empowering for women—a promise that they could return to work sooner. It is a promise that my mother and millions of parents believed in. It provided a way for parents to continue supporting their families without having to worry about loss of pay.

But Middleton reveals that what is pitched as empowerment can actually restrict the choices of families. “There is a correlation between the lack of policy support for longer maternity leave, requirements for employers to provide a safe environment for nursing mothers, and capitalism,” she said. “Of course, it’s better for employers if they can get mothers back in to the workplace sooner, and it’s harder for you to nurse if you have to return to work in six weeks. This plays directly into the hands of formula companies.”