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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.

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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.” 

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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.”

Emotional-wellness advocate Ekua Adisa chose to breast-feed and birth at home last year. She said she is excited to see more black women breast-feeding on social media. It is a positive counter to the flood of formula advertising that low-income women of color, in particular, receive every day.

The images are “subversive to patriarchy because it [says] this is my body and I will use it however I want to use it. For me, when I think about mothering and feeding my son, I think about the women, my ancestors, who were not nursing their babies because they were nursing other people’s babies; and women who were taught that their milk, their bodies, were bad and were pushed to use a product instead.”

Highlighting the historical significance that breast-feeding has had for black families, Middleton says, “When you are in a state of crisis, which we have been since we arrived on these shores, you survive through healing practices. Midwifery brought us through survival, not just to catch babies but [to help with] all the postnatal care and to help with abortion if necessary. Breast-feeding is the way we kept our families alive against all obstacles and at all costs.

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“Breast-feeding our own children is an act of resistance,” she continues. “If the milk of black mothers was imperative to the survival of white children to the point where it was denied to black babies, then providing that nutrient to our children is evidence of how far we have come and how we continue to push back.”

In celebration of this year’s Mamas Day—a nationwide campaign that celebrates mothers of all races, ethnicities and sexual orientations—I want to uplift and support nursing mothers and highlight ways to do so:

1. Love and dote on them! “If you don’t have the emotional support afterward, you can give up,” Middleton shares. Her mother never breast-fed, but she stayed with Middleton for two weeks after the birth of Middleton’s children to provide emotional support and to handle chores around the house so that Middleton could focus on nursing.

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2. Learn how you can get involved and give mothers accessible, affordable health care this Mother’s Day. Advocate for Medicaid expansion! Currently, low-income women have the option of temporary Medicaid during pregnancy for a few months after the birth of their newborns. Expanding Medicaid eligibility helps keep parents healthy for their children.

Bianca Campbell is an organizer at the Atlanta-based organization Spark. To learn more about this year’s Mamas Day campaign, please visit mamasday.org.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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